Home Ec Returns to College Campuses With a Modern Twist

Teaching students how to cook is not only healthy, but it can help limit hunger too.

Chef Mickael Blancho of UCSB’s University Center Dining Services gives a cooking demonstration to kick off the Food, Nutrition, and Basic Skills Program. (Photo: Sonia Fernandez)

Feb 5, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

The home economics teacher at my junior high wrote two of my favorite cookbooks. Filled with ’90s flourishes—margarine! marinated artichoke hearts!—they offer a plan of attack for myriad scenarios: preparing for a houseful of hungry weekend guests, packing a picnic for a cross-country skiing afternoon that doesn’t freeze, or creating nutritionally balanced menus that value the occasional oatmeal-chocolate-chip cookie as much as a pot of slow-simmered beans.

“When I was in high school, we had a home ec class, and that’s not taught anymore,” said Mike Miller of University of California, Santa Barbara. The bygone course, often viewed in hindsight as a regressive leftover of 1950s identity politics, wasn’t all about teaching women their way around kitchens. After all, it’s the class that taught Miller, director of the university’s office of financial aid and scholarships, to balance a checkbook, and the cooking skills are, as my books show, broadly applicable. “Students come onto a college campus and they have a meal plan. Once they get out on their own, a lot of them don’t even know where to begin,” Miller said.

Combining cooking skills with some personal economics may not only help kids eat better—it could prevent some of them from facing real hunger.

UCSB’s pilot initiative, the Food, Nutrition, and Basic Skills Program, aims to teach students what they might have missed in home ec: basic kitchen skills, meal planning, and how to shop on a limited grocery budget without resorting to starving-college-student clichés.

“One of the things that really bothers me is we have this mentality that it’s a rite of passage for students to eat Top Ramen and to skip meals, and that’s not right,” Miller said. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”

The UC Global Food Initiative, which works to solve issues of food insecurity both on and off campus, granted each of the UC campuses $75,000 to create a food security plan. Miller initially thought the money would be a gift to the food bank. But as the UCSB Food Security Working Group began to put their heads together, they agreed safeguards could be put in place long before a student has to reach for emergency rations.

“We all had the same idea: We want the food bank to be as far in the background as possible. We want to make students more aware of what they can do to make sure their situation is as secure and healthy as possible. If they run into problems, then we can refer them to the food bank, but there are so many things we can do before they get to that point,” Miller said.

A surprising number of students across the country do get to that point. A recent survey of 4,300 students at 10 community colleges in New York, New Jersey, California, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, published in The New York Times, reported that one in five students had gone hungry owing to lack of money in the last 30 days. Thirteen percent had experienced some form of homelessness in the last year, and more than half were at risk of homelessness—even though the majority had financial aid and jobs.

In UCSB’s pilot initiative, skill building becomes the safety net, with the general manager at the Isla Vista Food Co-op, for example, leading students on tours that highlight deals in the bulk aisle and how to shop based on weekly sales. John Lazarus, assistant director of dining services, has led some of the cooking workshops in which he tries to “demystify cooking” for students who are learning to make a meal for the first time. A student at one recent workshop had never chopped an onion. Most knew what sautéing was, but braising, glazing, and quick-pickling vegetables were all new. Lessons in simplicity and staying loosey-goosey while shopping, Lazarus said, go a long way toward economizing.

“To cook food at a really elevated level is complex, but to make a bowl of lentil soup is not that complicated,” Lazarus said. “Recipes are enormously helpful, but if you want to stretch your dollars, you need to start thinking about how those foods go together, how flavors balance out, and not be afraid to substitute other ingredients if they’re in season and running cheap or are on sale.”

“Most of the kids walk out of there with some new skill they can put into their own lives in the next week,” he added.

Lazarus himself cooks this way at home for his family, thinking about how one big-batch meal can evolve throughout the week. Sunday’s lentil soup becomes lentil cakes with tomato sauce and cheese. A turkey meatloaf becomes grilled meatloaf sandwiches, and later becomes chili.

Both Miller and Lazarus are quick to point out these aren’t just student lessons. The task of learning to live on a budget doesn’t go away after graduation. In fact, the purse strings may stay just as tight. The class of 2015 graduated with $35,000 in student-loan debt, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“I don’t think you can be a good student when you’re hungry,” Lazarus said. “We all see this as essential, not just at UCSB. I can’t imagine there’s a campus that’s not thinking about this right now.”