We promise our college students a lot these days. We promise them a quality education, access to top professors, and an intellectually active campus. We promise them the opportunity to think critically, build their leadership skills, and express their creativity. We ensure that they’ll have easy access to advisors, mentors, and specialists to consult them on a wide range of personal and academic issues. We nurture and support their development into individuals who are ready to tackle the world and provide for themselves. We want them to have a solid foundation for the road ahead. And yet we have overlooked one of the most basic, fundamental skills anyone can have for leading a healthy and successful life.
We forgot to teach them how to cook.
In a nation where diet-related deaths have increased to shocking numbers and eating has become not only a personal issue but also a social and political one, we are not teaching students one of the easiest ways to improve the quality of their lives 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. 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 has 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, the dining service is working with student groups to make sure 20 percent of the food used in campus dining halls is 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 bring 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 our 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 resort to microwaving 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 as 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 own fresh, local produce and make a delicious meal from it. The process of 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.
Levitt is a member of the class of 2012