December 1, 2013

Family and consumer science on chopping block

In Maine schools and elsewhere, the classes are disappearing because of years of budget cuts.

By Susan McMillan
Staff Writer

SKOWHEGAN — The pizza pockets emerged from the oven pale and soft, not golden and flaky as the recipe said they should be after 14 minutes.

click image to enlarge

Skowhegan Area High School teacher Beth Scherpf speaks with students in the basic foods class last month. At right, student Jeremy Silva prepares to make pizza pockets.

Photos by David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

click image to enlarge

Skowhegan Area High School students in the basic foods class prepare to make pizza pockets. They are, from left: Emily Greaney, Mariah Bonneau, Laura Wolters and Monique Thompson.

Skowhegan Area High School teacher Beth Scherpf walked over to talk with the students about what might have gone wrong.

“These are a little doughy still, so I think they need more time,” she said.

Floating among teams of students in her basic foods class, Scherpf made sure the students were measuring the shredded mozzarella the right way, chopping onions safely and keeping their work stations clean.

Scherpf teaches family and consumer science, the subject that was known as home economics until the 1990s.

While programs for business, culinary arts and early childhood education prepare students for careers in those fields, family and consumer science classes are intended to help them manage their own households’ finances, nutrition, child-rearing and family relationships.

“I think kids leave my room with a confidence that they can try new things, do new things, and they can take care of themselves better,” said Betsy Brady, who teaches family and consumer science at Mount Blue High School in Farmington. “The independence that they’re going to leave with is huge.”

The application of scientific principles to home life dates to the 19th century, and the subject has evolved in response to social and economic changes.

Home economics once prepared girls to become housewives. There are fewer housewives now, which Scherpf said makes family and consumer sciences more necessary in some ways. In households with a single parent, or where two incomes are needed to support the family, parents may not have time to cook, much less teach their children how.


In addition to basic foods, Scherpf teaches classes in nutrition, sewing and child development. Family and consumer science classes at other schools may include parenting, interior design or personal finance.

Students enter the classes at a range of skill levels. In sewing, some students have so little experience working with their hands that they can’t cut fabric properly. Some students have never done more in the kitchen than open a can, while others have prepared meals for their families.

In Scherpf’s basic foods class, students learn about kitchen safety and hygiene, the use of key kitchen tools, techniques for measuring and cutting and vocabulary such as browning and braising.

“I didn’t know how to cook much when I started,” said Mariah Bonneau, a freshman from Skowhegan. “Now that I’ve learned more, I cook more.”

Bonneau said she recently baked an apple pie from scratch.

In their cooking laboratories so far this year, the students have made soup, smoothies, several types of vegetables, apple turnovers and the pizza pockets.

Partly because of the limited time available during a class period, they use some convenience foods, such as pie crust from a box and pizza sauce from a jar. But Scherpf said she teaches the students to read labels and understand the trade-offs of nutrition and price between processed and homemade foods, and as the semester progresses they’ll cook more from scratch.

Junior Emily Greany of Mercer said it’s exciting to see the application of things she’s learning in class when she helps her mother cook. Greaney’s previous experience consisted mostly of baking with boxed mixes.

“It’ll help later in life,” she said of the class. “It’s skills that you have to know.”


While some aspects of the subject have changed, the makeup of the basic foods class was not much different than it would have been in the days when girls took home economics while boys took shop. Of about 20 students in basic foods, only three are boys, and Scherpf said boys are even rarer in her sewing and child development classes.

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