Pros and Cons of Making Food and Nutrition Compulsory Subjects
The Importance of Studying Food and Nutrition
Knowing how to choose and prepare healthy and nutritious food is a very important skill in life. A healthy diet supports the immune system and reduces the occurrence of many diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and some kinds of cancer. Being healthy improves the quality of a person's life and decreases public health care costs.
According to WHO (the World Health Organization), obesity has become a "global epidemic". Even children are becoming obese and developing type 2 diabetes. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) says that almost 36% of U.S. adults and about 17% of U.S. children are obese.
Obesity is probably caused by a combination of factors, but many health experts feel that the increasing incidence of the disorder is being fueled in part by our increased reliance on highly processed foods and large serving sizes.
In many cities and towns, the pressure to follow the junk food lifestyle is intense. This is especially true for young people, as I know by observing the students in my school. High school and elementary students need to discover the benefits of a healthy diet and learn about foods that support this diet. They also need to learn cooking skills and realize that foods that are nutritious can also taste delicious.
Food and Nutrition Classes in Schools
The topics of food and nutrition are often discussed in other school subjects, such as science, biology, family studies, or home economics. This may be a successful tactic, provided enough hours are assigned to the food and nutrition sections of the courses. It's the system used in my school. It seems to work quite well, but it could be improved.
Ideally, food and nutrition should be studied in the same course. The food preparation and cooking component of the course will give students practical experience to help them in their daily lives. The nutrition part of the course will give students a theoretical background and should help them understand how the treatment of foods affects their nutrient level. It may also enable them to perform lab experiments related to nutrition.
I think that a specialized course is especially important in the older grades so that the topics of food and nutrition can be covered in depth and the relationships between them emphasized. However the topics are studied, though, there is a strong case for making them compulsory for both genders in at least some grades. Improving the health of the upcoming generation is vitally important, not only for the sake of individual students and their families but also for the sake of public health budgets.
Advantages of a Food and Nutrition Course
A food and nutrition course offers many valuable benefits to students. For example, the course may enable students to:
- use food preparation equipment
- use different cooking techniques
- follow a recipe
- understand the health benefits of specific foods, nutrients, and additives
- understand the potential dangers of certain food ingredients and additives
- evaluate the contents in recipes and the ingredients listed on food packages
- prepare and store food safely
- take precautions to prevent foodborne illness
- discover healthier ways to make their favourite foods while maintaining a food's appealing taste
- discover ways to buy healthy foods and ingredients cheaply
- eat interesting foods that they haven't tried before
- eat foods from other cultures
- develop an interest in creating new recipes
- support their health and the health of their present and future family through the diet
More Benefits of the Course
A good food and nutrition course teaches students thinking and analytical skills, especially at the senior level. These skills will be valuable in other subject areas and in other areas of life. The course may:
- teach students to evaluate the results of nutrition experiments.
- help them assess the reliability of nutritional claims made on the Internet and reported in the media
- help them assess the different nutrient needs of people in different stages of their life cycle
- help them to appreciate the different dietary preferences of different groups of people
- help them appreciate the effects of a food choice on the environment or on other people
- teach students first aid techniques for injuries that may appear during food preparation
- enable them to learn gardening skills as they grow some of their own produce in a school garden or in outdoor or indoor containers
- introduce them to careers related to food and nutrition
Growing Food in a School Garden
Problems: No Time or Teacher for a Specialized Class
No Time in the Curriculum
Although teaching food and nutrition in school may sound like a good idea, there are some problems with the plan. Some schools struggle to find time in the curriculum for subjects other than the core ones. Language arts, math, science, and social studies must be allotted a specific number of hours in the school year. Often physical education, a computer course, and a second language are required subjects, too. There are many other worthy subjects vying for time in the curriculum, such as music, drama, and art. There may not be time for a separate food and nutrition course.
In higher grades students are often constrained in their subject choice by college or university admission requirements. Food and nutrition may have to be an elective subject rather than a compulsory subject in these grades.
No Specialist Teacher Available
Another problem is that a school may have no teacher qualified to teach food and nutrition at an advanced level. If there is a qualified teacher, he or she may be too busy teaching other subjects. There may not be enough money in the budget to hire a new teacher if one is needed.
Expensive Cooking Ingredients and Equipment
For schools with small budgets, buying recipe ingredients for an entire class or for multiple classes may be difficult financially. This may limit class size and force food and nutrition to be an elective subject. Buying large pieces of equipment like ovens may also be difficult.
Teachers may be able to solve the problems of expensive ingredients or equipment by following some of the following suggestions.
- If only one oven is available, students could prepare a food that needs to be baked and then give it to the teacher instead of putting it in the oven. The teacher could bake the food during the rest of the day and give the baked goods to the students before they go home. The teacher could bake his or her own sample of the food during class to demonstrate when a product should be taken out of the oven.
- Portable hotplates are cheaper than stoves, but the teacher needs to be aware of safety issues when using these devices.
- Students could prepare food in larger groups so that fewer ingredients and less equipment is needed.
- Students could watch more food being prepared in videos and take less time following recipes themselves. Some hands-on work is necessary for the most effective course, though.
- Students could prepare only cold or no-bake foods in class and watch the preparation of food that needs to be cooked in videos.
- Teachers could prepare some foods as a demonstration and share them with the students afterwards.
The Problem of Accommodating Special Diets
Vegans eat no food that comes from animals; vegetarians eat plants, eggs, and dairy but no fish or meats. A vegan or vegetarian family is unlikely to want their children to learn about the best way to cook salmon or to practice making healthy gravies for beef.
Children who don't eat meat could follow a separate recipe that uses a vegan source of protein, such as tofu. Some families with strict dietary requirements may not want their children to be present in the room where certain foods are being prepared or discussed, however.
There may also be health concerns related to the use of specific ingredients in class. For example, people with celiac disease are intolerant to gluten, a substance present in many grains. The gluten damages and destroys the tiny projections on the lining of the small intestine, which are called villi. The villi absorb nutrients from food, so when they aren't functioning properly or are absent serious health problems can develop. The intestine usually heals on a gluten-free diet, but even a small amount of gluten can trigger more damage.
A student with celiac disease mustn't make a product with gluten-free flours while the other students in the class are using a flour that contains gluten. Flour particles containing gluten can drift through the room and settle on the gluten-free flour.
Handling the Problem of Different Dietary Requirements
Making food and nutrition an elective subject would solve the problem of accommodating students who have different dietary requirements from the majority of a class or school. It may have the unfortunate effect of excluding these students from a popular elective which they would like to take, however.
If the course is compulsory and a student can't stay in the classroom when a certain recipe is being followed or discussed, he or she could leave the class to work on a written assignment, watch a video, or participate in another activity. Separating a student from his or her class isn't a good situation, so the student should return to the classroom as soon as possible. It's important that no student feels bad about being temporarily excluded from a course.
Perhaps at another time the whole class could make a food that incorporates the special dietary requirements of one of its members. This not only makes the class more inclusive but prepares students for the real world when they may have guests that cannot eat certain foods. They may even discover that they love the foods made with alternate ingredients.
A Poll - Food and Nutrition Classes
Do you think that a food and nutrition class should be part of the school curriculum?
Food and Nutrition in the Elementary and High School Curriculum
Food and nutrition are very important topics for students and for society. I believe that it's essential that they are incorporated into the curriculum in some way in both elementary school and high school. The topics can teach useful skills and provide information for life. In my opinion, schools should make sure that all of their students learn about food and nutrition in as many grades as possible, even if the subjects can't be taught in a separate course.
References and Resources
Childhood Overweight and Obesity from the CDC
Controlling the Global Obesity Epidemic from WHO (World Health Organization)
The MyPlate program from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) has replaced the familiar food pyramid.
Information about growing vegetables in a school garden is provided by the Royal Horticultural Society.
© 2013 Linda Crampton