Concerned father, Georgia chef and restaurateur Hugh Acheson transforms a missed opportunity into a teaching moment.
When she was 11, my daughter Beatrice came home from school and recounted her first day of sixth grade. Usually, her summaries are less than verbose, often limited to “school good.” But on that day, she wanted to tell me what she had learned in Family and Consumer Sciences, the life management course that was called Home Economics when I was in school. My hope was that she would learn the joys of making her bed every day, picking up after herself and maybe preparing a four-course meal for her father.
Nope. That was not how this day went down.
“Well, Dad,” she said, “we learned how to make red velvet cupcakes, bacon-wrapped croissants from a tube, and how to take prenatal vitamins.”
To give you some background, Beatrice is my oldest daughter, now 13, and she is an insightful, vibrant soul. She’s also an excellent student at the local public school. Beatrice believes in her school and that education will build a foundation for her future. This is a kid with aspirations of becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon, a profession I had to Google when she first mentioned it. She has wanted to be a doctor since the age of 8—she once asked for a fetal pig and a suture kit for Christmas. Beatrice is a bright kid, but bright kids need life skills, too.
To put it mildly, Beatrice was disappointed with her first day of sixth grade. She knew these lessons were probably not going to make life easier or healthier or better for her or anyone else. The food she described was neither nutritious nor revitalizing, but treats that make you want a nap. They were examples of a culture based on convenient consumption that has created national health epidemics like obesity and diabetes. As for the prenatal vitamins, they were not an ethical issue for me, but a basic observation revealed a flaw in the lesson: the bottle gave instructions to “take one a day.” This struck me as too simplistic to eat up valuable class time.
We live in a house where, because of my occupation, we treasure food. We make meals from scratch and talk about agrarian systems, health and nutrition on a daily basis. My kids watch me at work preparing food, and it readies them for a healthier future. They will be better equipped for life because they can make a meal for themselves and their loved ones. But should I have been aghast at what they were learning in school? To me, it was a missed opportunity to cultivate good eaters and cooks.
I have long been a proponent of the town I live in. This area has given me so much support and success, and I cherish this state for its amazing landscapes and vast, agrarian beauty. I am a proud cheerleader for all things Georgia. But that pride comes with a clear understanding of the inequities that make life difficult for many of our citizens. We have health and poverty issues we need to deal with before we can fulfill the promise of a better tomorrow. My Georgia has children of all shapes, sizes, creeds and colors, and I believe that we are failing if we don’t try to give every child the skills to make their generation better than ours.
So I got in touch with the school district in Athens-Clarke County. We had some meetings, and I realized they were interested in improving the curriculum. There are many people diligently trying to make an impact with school gardens, healthier school lunches, meals for kids to take home on weekends so that they don’t go hungry. I applaud these efforts and hope they work.
But, what if we could equip kids with practical, pertinent life skills that they retain throughout adulthood? What if most kids could poach an egg, make a vinaigrette, roast carrots, make rice, roast a chicken, hem pants, understand a cell phone contract, read an apartment lease and tie some knots? What if we could teach all kids to make iced tea from scratch and assemble a meal for four people that costs less than eight dollars? What if we could prove that buying food at a local farmers’ market can be a smart economic decision for both the buyer and the farmer?
I believe a nuanced, intelligently structured, contemporary curriculum will help exceptional teachers become even more so, while also elevating ideas and creating the impetus to make lessons more retainable. We need to empower the next generation with skills they can and will actually use. It’s like urban homesteading for the 21st century—giving kids the skills to avoid common traps in life like relying on fast food, falling into financial potholes like high-interest loans, buying replacements when a simple fix will do, or not knowing the wallet-smart artistry of cooking a healthy meal.
To meet that need, we created Seed Life Skills, a nonprofit organization into which parents, teachers, administrators, culinary and industry professionals could pool resources to build a smart, deliverable curriculum. The Clarke County School District here in Athens has committed to use our curriculum in the sixth-grade classes of four middle schools, beginning in fall 2016.
Seed Life Skills is a small foundation that falls under the 501(c)(3) umbrella of the Captain Planet Foundation, a wonderful nonprofit based in Atlanta. The progress we have made makes me proud, but we want to grow the concept to be as meaningful and widespread as it can be. We have dreams to implement the program throughout Georgia, and ultimately, the nation. Because of Savannah’s persistent poverty rate, which continues to hover near 26 percent, and the more than 67 percent of public school children qualifying for the free or reduced-fee lunch program, the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System is high on our list of districts where we feel we could make a real difference.
We will be a stronger society if each new generation knows how to feed themselves a healthy meal, made from scratch. It’s the best way to fight hunger and all the social, emotional and physical ills that begin with an empty stomach.
To learn more, go to seedlifeskills.org
Cover photo by Kelly Sikkema.