A food and nutrition instructor at South Portland High School is using her class to make up for what she said is lacking in the families of today’s high school students.

Families are struggling these days, Susan Franck said, and students can no longer acquire all the skills and information they need while at home – whether that means confidence around a stove, healthy living or basic communication and teamwork skills.

“The team thing is big,” Franck said. During one class she set a table for dinner, complete with silverware and plates and napkins and was amazed at the number of students who hadn’t experienced this at home since they were children.

The advantage of the table setting, Franck said, was that everybody got along better, the atmosphere was more relaxed and there was more time to talk.

“That whole piece of home isn’t a priority,” Franck said.

Another issue that does not seem to be a priority at home is eating healthy. Before Franck began teaching what many still know as home economics, she was a health teacher. Today the field is known as family and consumer sciences, and Franck folds health education into her current classes.

On a Friday afternoon last week Franck stood before her class, with half the students missing because it was the last class block of the day, and told them about the benefits of having soy in their diets.

Two sides of Franck’s classroom consist of four kitchen stations complete with sinks, stoves and ovens. Along the other length is a line of tables under a wall of windows.

Franck said that after the University of Maine stopped offering a home economics teaching program in 1990 many high schools have dropped their programs, including most in this area.

Franck said the South Portland School Department has been very supportive of her program and generous with her budget. So generous in fact, that Franck can afford to buy ingredients every semester for a section in cooking with soy without students having to pay a lab fee.

None of the students had ever cooked with soy before, very few had ever tried it, and no one claimed to enjoy it. Many were very suspect about the whole thing from the beginning. For the day’s class Franck had bought supplies: textured soy protein, soy milk, tofu, soy pepperoni and soy cheese.

After a quick discussion Franck sent them to their kitchens. There was hot and spicy tofu stir-fry, soyful lemon pudding with fresh blueberries, soy pepperoni and sausage pizza, vegetarian ziti with soy protein.

Three female students stood in their kitchen station looking suspiciously at the ingredients they were told to use. They had been assigned to make a salad with fried tofu and the vegetarian ziti dish with textured soy protein – it looks like a chunk of cooked meat, one of the students observed.

Junior Alicia Dechaine held an open package of tofu away from her body.

“I’m not touching that,” she said, as she passed it to her classmate, who sniffed and poked at it. “It doesn’t smell like anything,” she said.

Prior to the class Franck had her students track everything they ate for three days, the amount of calories and the number of servings of whatever they consumed and then had them use the new food pyramid to determine if they were getting what they needed in their diets. This new pyramid has just recently been developed and is available on the Web at www.mypyramid.gov. The old food pyramid most people think of is being phased out.

“We’ve been using this for 12 years and we’ve just gotten fat, so it has to go,” Franck said.

Franck can talk to her students about the health benefits of eating right, she can have them cook mushroom, tofu stir-fries and pizza with soy pepperoni, but she can’t force them to eat it. Most of the food at the end of the class went uneaten by the students; the leftovers were brought to the teachers’ lounge.

Afterwards students were asked if they would cook any of the foods they had prepared that day again in the future, and the answers were disheartening. Many just said “no.” Those who said “yes” said they would try the pizza and ziti dish again, but only because you couldn’t taste the soy in them.

Facing the challenges of healthy eating

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