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A retro idea that's better than banning soda?

June 05, 2012|By Alexandra Le Tellier
  • Home economics teacher Michelle Bukowski conducts a culinary arts class for high school students at South Pasadena Middle School.
Home economics teacher Michelle Bukowski conducts a culinary arts class… (Los Angeles Times )

Do you remember home ec? I don't. My high school may have offered it as an elective, but I certainly didn't know about it. A decade and a half after graduating from high school and I'm still somewhat hopeless in the domestic areas of life. I like to joke that my kitchen doubles as a closet; though it's more likely that the joke's on me.

Torie Bosch, editor of Slate's "Future Tense," a "citizen’s guide to the future," argues that schools ought to bring back home ec as a matter of public health. Framed that way and the suggestion doesn’t seem so retro.  

"You could make the case that home ec is more valuable than ever in an age when junk food is everywhere, obesity is rampant, and few parents have time to cook for their children. Rather than training girls to be housewives, home ec today can teach students to cook for themselves after work once they reach adulthood,” she writes. Further, and more to the point: “The basics of cooking, nutrition, and consumer economics will, for many students, be much more useful than algebra later in life."

Also useful: teaching students not to fall for the relentless marketing around junk food.

In much of the commentary surrounding New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban on sugary drinks, one theme has recurred: Consumers need more information so they can make educated decisions for themselves.

In The Times' editorial on the subject, for instance, the editorial board wrote:  “With no precedents to show the effectiveness of Bloomberg's approach, a better way to balance the competing interests of public health and personal choice would be to require more effective disclosure about the calories in soda and a more aggressive effort to educate the public about the associated risks and costs. There are nearly 400 calories in 32 ounces of Coca-Cola Classic, which is almost as much as aMcDonald's quarter-pound hamburger. Raising awareness about calorie counts may also encourage restaurants to compete to offer the healthiest goods, not just the biggest portions.”

But what about consumers who are rendered helpless to sugar’s addictive qualities, even in the face of clear nutritional labels?

“Some object that the mayor's proposal to restrict serving sizes will restrict liberty. But the liberty restricted is not the liberty of the soda drinker. If they wish, soda drinkers can buy a 2-liter bottle of soda at the grocery for about $1.70 and pour as much of it down their throats as they wish. The liberty that is being restricted is the liberty of the soda seller to manipulate known human weaknesses to the seller's advantage and the buyer's detriment,” writes David Frum on CNN. “The sugary beverage industry has invested massively to understand better how to use our very human natures against us.”

So, though awareness and educating school children are good steps, are they enough to steer our public health crisis in the right direction? “Education? I’m for it if it’s focused on educating the public how beverage companies really operate,” writes writes Marion Nestle of Food Politics. Otherwise, she argues that educational strategies don’t work because we live in a culture in which food is advertised to us, made available around the clock and served in large portions. “Faced with this kind of food environment, education doesn’t stand a chance.”

What’s needed, perhaps, is a combo approach. Here’s Frum again:

"The campaign against obesity will have to look a lot less like the campaign against smoking (which involves just one decision, to smoke or not to smoke) and much more like the generation-long campaign against highway fatalities, which required the redesign of cars, the redesign of highways, and changes in personal behavior like seat-belt use and drunk driving."


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