We forgot to teach them how to cook.
In a nation where diet related deaths has increased to shocking numbers and eating has become not only a personal issue but a social and political one, we are not teaching students one of the easiest ways to improve the quality of their life and the vitality of their communities. We have to start eating well. And the only way to eat well is to know how to cook.
When I became interested in cooking during middle school, I had no idea what a difference it would make in my life. Cooking allowed me to take control of a large part of my life. In my case, it gave me the skills to start a catering business with a friend during high school, has been a large part of my social life at college, and allowed me to eat well, whenever I want and with whatever resources might be available to me.
Many colleges throughout the country are already doing great work that allows their students to eat better. At Wesleyan, where I attend, the dining service is working with student groups to make twenty percent of the food used in campus dining halls sourced from local vendors. Half an hour away, the Yale Sustainable Food Project runs an organic farm, looks into academic issues related to food and works with the sustainable dining program for their university. Additionally, projects like Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard brings middle school students into the garden and the kitchen for lessons in cooking and healthy eating. These and other programs are real steps in the right direction towards getting us to eat better and improve our relationship with food and with our communities.
But even at these universities, many students leave college without any knowledge of how to cook for themselves. Once the comfort of a dining hall is left behind, will these students have to microwave Ramen as mindlessly as they would in their dorm rooms? When we enter the real world, we need the basic tools to provide for ourselves. As the flood of nutrition and obesity statistics makes painfully obvious, we do not have these tools. We aren’t cooking or feeding ourselves in a way that is sustainable for our own lives, our communities or our country. When frozen dinners and fast food drive-by windows have become a norm in many households, we need to make a change. We need to stop killing ourselves with the food we eat. We need to teach people how to cook.
These skills, of course, should not only be provided to those fortunate enough to attend college. But college is a particularly appropriate place to educate our youth about food and cooking for a variety of reasons. For one, colleges have a concentration of individuals about to enter the real world with the time and interest to partake in activities that improve the quality of their lives. Otherwise they wouldn’t be at college. And today, what you eat is quickly becoming a measure of status and success in many of the ways that simply attending college once was. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, many colleges already have programs in place to improve the quality of students’ relationship with food. Why should a skill as basic as cooking not be included in these initiatives? Colleges should offer cooking lessons and activities that teach students how to cook. And finally, colleges are often a catalyst for social change. If we are going to change the way America eats, we should empower our college youth to take part in that change.
The food movement today is alive as ever and is improving the way we eat in a real and significant way. Much of the focus so far has been on greater availability of fresh, healthy food and on encouraging everyone to eat better, whether through making good choices at the grocery store or improving lunches at public schools. These are all vitally important steps in the process. But we must focus on teaching people how to cook this food. The food movement cannot exist without everyone being able to take home their fresh, local produce and make a delicious meal from it. The process of actually cooking is the most personal way we can connect with the food movement. We have a nation of college students waiting to learn how. Let's teach them.