When he was approached about bringing a nutrition program and cooking classes to his tough urban middle school, Principal Carland Washington wasn’t convinced.

Most of his students at West Prep Academy on the Upper West Side of Manhattan get free or reduced-price meals, and while the school’s breakfasts and lunches weren’t always healthy, at least they were being consumed. His efforts could potentially make the students’ situation worse. Plus, he knew unstructured time could go awry.

“At least they were eating the hamburgers, and pizza, and fried foods. I knew they weren’t always good for them, but didn’t want them to just go hungry if we started offering healthy food that they didn’t like,” Washington says. “I’ve always been an advocate for home economics classes, but I didn’t know how cooking instruction here would work.”

Connie Evers, a nutrition consultant who advocates for cooking in the schools, says it is fundamentally important for young people.

“Acquiring life skills around food is the foundation of proper nutrition. With all of the available convenience and fast foods, some families that I work with lack basic shopping, menu planning, and food preparation skills,” Evers says. “Cooking is about nutrition, and school administrators will quickly see that a well-nourished child who is physically active is going to function better in so many ways.”
Washington made the choice to embark on a new adventure with cooking classes. West Prep Academy partnered with Wellness in the Schools (WITS), a nonprofit group that improves school meals and teaches kids cooking. WITS reaches 50,000 kids in four states with a three-pronged approach-the program offers a visiting chef to direct cooking labs for students and to help cafeteria workers with better lunch options, as well as a coach who directs recess activities and involves everyone in movement. It’s funded by grants and asks schools to chip in on a sliding scale.

WITS works largely in schools like Washington’s, where the neighborhood bodega is often a family’s main source of groceries and quick, processed foods. The students get an opportunity to cook and learn background knowledge about nutrition and food preparation through their science classes, where they also grow food. Recently, kids grew lettuce in a “tower garden,” which grows out from a vertical stand. They also learned about red peppers and kale. “A lot of the students have never tried either of them before, and then I hear them talking about ways they make these recipes at home,” Washington says. “That was pretty remarkable.”

He says awareness about healthy choices has helped him improve school culture and behavior, double some standardized test scores, and accomplish one of his personal goals-getting kids to experiment with and explore something new, which he believes should be one of a school’s primary objectives.

Investing in Future Generations

Nutrition is getting more attention in education, as schools see teaching those skills as their responsibility and envision how better eating and healthier lifestyles improve performance. 
A recent University of Michigan study found that nearly 70 percent of the public would like to see cooking taught in home economics classes.

“In spite of most Americans saying they have learned to cook somewhere along the line, there is a need to invest in teaching the next generation these skills, and our research shows strong support for some form of modern home economics in schools,” says Julia Wolfson, assistant professor of health management and policy at Michigan and author of the study.

Food historian Helen Zoe Veit has advocated for cooking in schools, writing a commentary about the need for home economics for The New York Times and voicing her position in other national media. She is a professor at Michigan State University and the author of several books about food throughout history.

Americans have moved away from teaching food preparation largely because of commercial interests, which began supplying home economics classes with easy recipes using processed foods, she says. “There are so many reasons why we should return to knowing how to cook and cooking as a family,” she says. “We really need to start by making it a priority in education.” Veit points to statistics that show that even beyond instruction in nutrition, cooking skills improve eating habits and health, especially when young people are introduced to them early.

Help from the Feds

Elizabeth Shephard teaches nutrition and food safety at the University of Florida and works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s extension service, which offers university-trained specialists at the county level. These specialists can help schools develop healthy eating and cooking programs.

In Brevard County, FL, schools typically offer after-school cooking programs that involve relatively simple recipes students can replicate at home. The six-week program culminates with a meal they cook for their families. While the students’ engagement always impresses her, Shephard is often more surprised by the response of the parents, who are pleased to find their children wanting to cook and eat healthier. “The kids get excited about something new-like homemade hummus. They want to do it at home,” she says. “That helps everyone think about healthy cooking.”

Improved School Climate 

Cooking classes can give students practice in math through measuring and the use of fractions, Shephard says. The act of mixing and witnessing of food transformations can teach science theory and reading, plus cooking helps with fine motor skills and learning patience. Some schools introduce social studies concepts through cooking by discussing the origins of various foods or the cultures that developed them. Any subject can generally be connected to foods. “Cooking brings people together. … Kids learn social skills and develop new relationships and good memories. It can also provide a useful break from the other classes where there is so much pressure today,” Shephard says.

Evers has had experience working with all levels of students. She says preschoolers can make hummus by mashing up garbanzo beans and adding a few ingredients, then digging in with fresh vegetables. Schools with older students can offer more elaborate courses for kids interested in cooking as a career. 

Washington says he believes the WITS program has improved school climate. “Kids love to eat, and they love hands-on activities. When I went into the lab, they were 100 percent engaged,” he says. “For my kids, an activity like that is something they need.”   

Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.

Making it Work

Consider implementing these tips to begin a food preparation program at your school:

  • Start small. Experts recommend having one teacher experiment with some food preparation-even something as simple as making a healthy salad and dressing. Consider offering food prep as an afterschool program initially, and then expand it if there’s interest. Some schools provide food preparation occasionally through a class such as health or science-or even physical education.
  • Move it around. Have teachers offer something involving food prep in their classes as they relate it to relevant subject matter. It can be simple-as easy as popcorn to discuss the importance of the corn crop or dandelion soup to talk about the environment and science.
  • Just demonstrate. Demonstrations about food in which kids get to try the results and learn about nutrition can get them excited about cooking and how food is prepared.
  • Reach outside. County extension services, local farmers markets, healthy food stores or chefs, and local restaurants may be willing to help. Community colleges often have hospitality, restaurant management, or culinary students whocould volunteer. Or culinary schools may want to show off their program to a group of interested high school students.
  • Involve families. A school might provide the facilities for cooking and staff to help, but let parents show off their best simple recipes as part of a multicultural event. Each station could provide a recipe, in addition to samples of the dishes.
  • Support others. Schools could also consider supporting programs at community centers where kids and families can learn cooking skills.