Could a Home Ec Revival Help Slash Food Waste?

Teaching an updated set of cooking skills to schoolkids could help reduce a major financial and environmental problem.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Jul 15, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

With 1.3 billion tons of food wasted annually around the globe and losses occurring throughout the supply chain, there is no one cause of the problem. But Liz Goodwin, who until recently ran the British government’s Waste and Resources Action Programme, has pointed to solutions beyond ones like getting retailers to stop rejecting ugly vegetables and starting municipal compost programs.

Instead of encouraging new behaviors, she’s looking at reintroducing some old ones via cooking education in public schools. “My view is that not teaching children how to cook will undoubtedly contribute” to food waste, she said in an interview with The Guardian.

Family and consumer sciences classes, as home economics is now known in the U.S., have been on the decline for decades. According to a 2013 study from the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences, enrollment dropped by 38 percent over the course of a decade. In 1959, nearly half of all high school girls took home ec.

That fewer American girls are being trained in today’s public schools to lead lives built around cooking, cleaning, and darning socks for their husbands and children is a mark of significant social progress. The kind of home ec revival that Goodwin and others—including Michelle Obama—have proposed would address both young men and women and impart the kind of cooking skills applicable to contemporary life now that college, career, and later-in-life marriage and parenthood are more likely for both sexes.

“We’ve probably got a couple of generations who went through school without really getting taught how to do things” such as menu planning and cooking, Goodwin said, “and then they’re terrified by use-by dates: One minute to midnight, it’s OK; a minute after midnight, it’s not OK.”

With roughly 50 percent of food waste in both the U.S. and the U.K. occurring after consumers bring their groceries home—and domestic at-home food waste increasing by half since the 1970s—Goodwin’s generation-gap theory seems to ring true.

Changes to regulations for sell-by-date labels—which, in the U.S., are essentially unregulated—could help to address some of the fear about expired products. The food-waste bill that Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, put forward in the House earlier this year would do just that.

But while policy change is needed to reduce food waste, cultural changes can help too. The classroom might be a good place to start.