Home economics, a neglected part of the climate solution


From farm to fork and beyond, food is responsible for 21-37% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Yet despite growing awareness that changing diets can help the climate, many people still don’t know how to eat more sustainably.

Kerry Renwick thinks a key tool for bridging this gap is being overlooked: home economics.

“We all make food decisions,” said the education professor at the University of British Columbia. As we face the climate crisis, the impact of these decisions is increasingly important. Home economics, which emphasizes food education, provides an entry point to educate people about food systems and help them make more sustainable decisions.

When taught well, Renwick said the material offers more than the easy-going lessons in cooking or practical skills that many Canadians might associate with home economics. It is an entry point for understanding the role of food – and of cooks and eaters – in the context of the larger food system.

“It not only recognizes the end user (of food), but (the) entire system. This holistic approach is particularly important for a number of different reasons,” she said. “When you just focus on the end user…it leads to this notion that we are just consumers, both of food and of products and services. For me, it’s really disempowering. »

This is problematic, she explained, because it makes it easier to ignore systemic issues that shape what and how we eat. Individual actions are important – eating less meat is one of the most effective ways for someone to reduce their carbon footprint, for example – but the responsibility cannot rest solely with individuals.

Learning to see this larger context is a key part of contemporary home economics, Renwick said. And unlike more academic courses, the subject offers a way to link these ideas to practical actions.

“You start looking at the whole food systems approach” and not just theory or practice, she said. “(You ask) what are cultural things? What are my food memories? What do I consider important in the diet? How does this play out in my daily construction of my culture, in the context of my family and the environment around me?

However, this potential is far from being realized. First introduced to Canadian schools in the early 1900s, home economics aimed to teach “by doing, not just passive absorption,” according to a 2010 study by the Provincial Teachers’ Association. domestical economy. But from the 1950s, subjects such as physics and chemistry began to sideline home economics courses in the curriculum.

Later movements, from feminist backlash against a subject often seen as excluding women from the workforce to pushing back against school administrators against its focus on the application of critical theory in daily life, further diminished its importance. More recently, a long-standing shortage of qualified teachers and a series of education policy changes in British Columbia have made classes harder to find, the study found. The trend continued through the 1980s and 1990s as schools increasingly focused on student employability, Renwick said.

From farm to fork and beyond, food is responsible for 21-37% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Yet despite growing awareness that changing diets can help the climate, many people still don’t know how to eat sustainably.

“Education has become about employment, rather than about employment and citizenship…The focus has shifted from those kinds of social and political notions to just a goal of economic employment.”

The topic has also historically been highly gendered, attracting more girls than boys due to broader societal pressures. Unfortunately, that perception also likely contributed to her being sidelined, she said.

This does not mean that there is no interest. Between 1999 and 2006, enrollment in British Columbia high school food studies courses increased by 30%. Meanwhile, the total number of students in schools has fallen by around 40,000, according to the 2010 study. Recent years have also seen a resurgence of interest in “adult” courses that teach adults everything , from cooking to DIY repairs to budgeting.

For Renwick, not knowing these basic skills — and seeing how they fit into larger issues like climate change — isn’t just an inconvenience. This negatively impacts our environment and makes it harder for us to push for effective systemic change.

“There are so many things around our daily choices that we make in ignorance and lack of understanding of the impact of those decisions,” she said. “A lot of things are happening on our behalf as a consumer that if we really knew, we wouldn’t.”

Still, beyond the topic’s potential to help teach the next generation about more sustainable lifestyles and diets, Renwick said COVID-19 has thrown the topic’s relevance in many people’s faces.

“A lot of people get by and do well thanks to what they have in their family context. So many businesses would go bankrupt if people didn’t have their homes,” she said.

Marc Fawcett-Atkinson / Local Journalism Initiative / National Observer of Canada


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