“Low Fat Is Not a Dirty Word.” The Faster Times Interviews Irene Joe, High School Food and Nutrition Teacher
Despite their mainstay on prime-time television–in Glee, Friday Night Lights, the new 90210 and the eternally syndicated original–high school students are rarely spotlighted in school food campaigns. Let’s Move, the First Lady’s laudable childhood obesity reversal initiative is focused on “children”, and “kids”, and less obviously inclusive of adolescents. It’s time we keep the big kid in the picture, too.
Elementary schools and middle schools are more captive environments than high schools. This means that changes to the school food environment may exert a more powerful influence over younger students. Since food preferences are often formed early in life, and school lunch participation is highest in the younger grades, there are sound reasons to focus school food service efforts on the earlier years. Younger students are also more likely to respond to posters of athletes drinking milk, and stickers announcing “I tried something new”.
Older kids are a tougher sell. They are versed in irony and sarcasm. And as teenagers shape their own identities, it’s developmentally expected for them to question the views of their parents and adults. Maybe I’m overly suspicious, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a feel-good story effect working against older children as well. A freckled Little Leaguer holding fist fulls of carrots is adorable. Acne-spotted teens are less photo friendly, no matter how much they love ratatouille.
High school students also have more disposable income and greater autonomy than younger students. This translates into greater purchasing power, more opportunities to buy food, and a goldmine for fast-food chains and food manufacturers looking to grow their customer base. For the food industry, the understanding that teens are actively constructing their ‘sense of self’ translates into the creation and sale of food-based identities.
Many school wellness policies as well as recommendations from reputable institutions, like the Institute of Medicine, offer multiple tiers of guidelines. The recommendations for high schools are often weaker. Compared to elementary schools and middle-schools, high schools are more likely to have vending machines, food or beverage based fundraisers, and “a la carte” food and beverage offerings.
For food service departments in many school districts, high schools present an opportunity to narrow budget gaps that may be incurred when purchasing new equipment, changing procurement practices, training staff etc. as part of broader efforts to offer and promote healthier and fresher options in the school cafeterias.
In addition, many high schools allow students to leave campus for lunch, relieving cafeteria capacity constraints but at the risk of diminishing revenue opportunities for the school. [Not to mention, fast-food chains have been shown to cluster near urban high schools]. As a result, school lunch competes with food off campus and often feels pressure to mimic fast-food in order to sell. School lunch participation declines in the older grades. This may signal a stay-at-home parent’s return to the workforce, a growing dislike of school lunches, or stigma associated with school lunch (these concerns are more common among older students). These patterns speak to the fact that changes to school lunch, critical as they are, may not be sufficient to change older students’ eating behaviors during the school day.
Older students are packing their own lunches, buying a la carte options and/or off campus food. They are making lots of choices. But what are they choosing? This matters–both in the short term and in the years to come. Teenagers have the highest nutrient needs of school-aged children but are also the most likely to be inadequate in their daily intake of key nutrients, including vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, phosphorus, and zinc. Dietary shortfalls may impact an adolescent’s ability to achieve full growth. Furthermore, food habits developed throughout childhood and adolescence often form an armature for the eating patterns followed as adults.
Just as students approach graduation, living away from home, being responsible for feeding themselves, and managing a budget, they are provided with fewer opportunities to learn how to select, handle, and prepare foods. These skills are urgently needed in the context of our current economic and overnutrition crises. Knowing how to prepare food cheaply and quickly can help save time, money, and excess calories. High school may be the last, and far too often lost, opportunity to introduce these topics before students move on to college or the workforce.
At the Faster Times holiday party, Ryan Joe (Comics) mentioned that his mom is currently a ‘home ec’ teacher. I jumped at the opportunity to speak with Irene Joe, who teaches Culinary Arts and Food and Nutrition in Modesto, California. The abridged interview follows. Thanks, Mrs Joe!
Faster Times: I remember having home ec when I was in Middle School. We sewed boxers from patterns and made veggie calzones. With an increasing focus on standardized testing, I’ve heard a lot about about ‘home ec’ and ‘family sciences’ being cut from school electives and how new schools are often built without facilities for these types of classes. What does home ec look like today?
Irene Joe: In Modesto, we’re still building schools with kitchens. They just built a new school. Overall, there are fewer home ec teachers. Colleges are not churning out home ec teachers like they’re used to. [In Modesto] Even though we have the home ec room, as we retire, they tend to convert the ‘foods room’ (e.g. food and nutrition) into a culinary arts program. The culinary arts really don’t talk about nutrition so much. It’s really meant for people who want a career–it’s much more vocational. The focus right now is not so much on home ec as life skills but as a career. I think that’s the wrong path…But that’s just me. If you’re taking foods and nutrition, and learning about the pathways, you could be inspired to be a nutritionist, not just (go into) the restaurant industry.
Faster Times: I couldn’t agree more. Everyone stands to benefit. The vocational programs are important but even if you have no intention of becoming a chef or caterer, you are still putting food in your mouth every day. Are there any trends that you’ve noticed over the years among students’ attitudes and comfort levels in the kitchen?
Irene Joe: Things like the Food Network. Some of the kids really enjoy watching that. They’ll ask if i’ve seen an episode of one thing or say “oh yeah…I saw that on…” The main change is that there are more boys taking it. Every once in a while I’ll get more boys than girls. The foods classes, you get about half-half. A lot of times the boys are there because they just want to eat. The classes sell themselves: you really don’t have to recruit. They’ll smell food and sign up.
Faster Times: What’s the dreaded subject? What do your students groan about?
Irene Joe: Groan the most about…right now it’s the nutrition unit. They ask me “Well, do you think this really helps us?.” I was talking about healthier eating “Do you really think anyone changes their mind because of this class.” Well yeah… actually, every year some students do change. Some lose weight. Some change their habits. But this is usually unit where they moan and groan.
Faster Times: Do any of the units surprise the students?
Irene Joe: I have to say that they’re really really surprised when you give them something low fat and it doesn’t taste “Low Fat”. When they’ve picked their own recipe and then they prepare it–they try it. I would say ‘You can substitute ground turkey instead of ground beef’ and they would say “Ewww.” If nobody told you it was lower fat, would you have thought it was low fat? They do realize that low fat is not a dirty word. Not a bad word. I think that’s probably the thing that makes me keep teaching the nutrition unit.
Faster Times: What do you see as the future for home economics type classes in the public schools?
Irene Joe: (laughs) I’m not real optimistic actually. As far as the teachers… I don’t know of many people going into home ec in college. There’s R.O.P Culinary Arts. That’s of a work type program. Culinary teachers who teach under ROP don’t have to be credentialled teachers. There’s good and bad to that. If you’re a chef you can actually teach kids, but then you have people who just want to teach and the district will hire them and they’re really not that well qualified.
Faster Times: Do you think there’s an opportunity to build off a growing national concern about healthy eating and health care?
Irene Joe: They keep talking about how there’s this big obesity problem. They talk about Phys Ed, but how about talking about eating right and cooking food?
Many of my students don’t sit down with their families to eat. Families are busy and everyone has different schedules. They (students) eat whenever and then they fend for themselves. At least when they fend for themselves, they can have some wholesome food to prepare.
A lot of the parents don’t cook. Sometimes, when I do a demonstration, they say “You would make all that on a week night?” As if, when they cook, it would only be on a weekend.
I guess politically, if they are worried about kids getting more obese, they should also be worried about what kids are eating and if they know how to feed themselves–how to cook.
As I said, I’m really pessimistic about the future of home ec, but I hope that I’m wrong. I’ll be pleasantly surprised. In our district, home ec classes are really popular. I teach three and it could have easily been five. Even with that, when we opened up those two culinary classes, they got filled up. I know a teacher in one of the newer schools; she’s teaching five classes and administration is teaching one more.
It’s not because kids don’t want it. It’s just that when there’s cuts, that might be an area to trim. So far, it’s fine. When I student-taught there were three home ec teachers. Now I’m a department of one. It’s definitely not for shortage of demand on the students’ part. I have classes of 36-40. Facilities are meant for probably 24. I have 6 stations. But they just kept adding and adding (students). It is really difficult for them to all have something to do.
Faster Times: I’m a big believer that all students–boys and girls–should have the opportunity to take cooking and nutrition classes as part of a public school education. I’m happy to hear that not only is Modesto building new schools with cooking facilities but that the classes are filled. That’s awesome! Congratulations. Thanks so much for talking with me. Good luck!
Photo by Gronberg
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