What it Takes to Achieve Food Agency

By Willa Imhoff

I love cooking, but do all 20 year olds feel the same way? In fact, environment, access, and culture makes a big difference in the ability to make choices in regards to food, or as a group of UVM researchers call it, their “food agency.”

Learning to cook in college
Students cooking in the UVM Food Lab.

Food agency is comprised of cooking skills, pre-existing knowledge of food and cooking, as well as comfortability in the kitchen. Hoping to understand some of the challenges my peers face while cooking, I talked to seven UVM students about their food agency.

A common theme expressed by students was feeling stressed or overwhelmed while grocery shopping. Estimating how much food to buy for the course of the week is challenging, often resulting in under or overestimating food quantity.

Underestimating often leads to additional trips to the grocery store and snacking instead of cooking meals. Overestimating leads to expired food, leftovers that don’t get eaten, and ultimately, their money is poorly spent.

Students reflected on the impact of not preparing a grocery list or meals for the week, and how it often leads to spending more money and time in the grocery store than if they had been prepared.

Many students struggle finding enough time to cook between school and work. The time they have, often reflects the quality of food and gratification they feel; more time to cook leads to well-thought out and better food, little time often leads to rushing/impatience and less satisfying food.

One student expressed that she struggles finding a balance between cooking quick/easy meals for the week that are usually unsatisfactory versus cooking three to four dinners that she is proud of and eating out the other few nights.

A third limitation many students come across is kitchen space. For the students who live off campus, the kitchens in their apartments and houses are often very small and cramped. Sharing a kitchen with other people is difficult; there is limited space in the fridge, little counter surface, and students have to share appliances, kitchen tools, and knives. In one person’s apartment, the sink is often full of dirty dishes, and she feels like she can’t start cooking until it is clean; this sometimes deters her from cooking.

Most students that I talked to were relatively comfortable in the kitchen, and felt capable of making a meal with ease and satisfaction. What is it that makes them confident in their cooking abilities? It could be their interest and eagerness to learn, their patience over time, or perhaps their parents taught them as kids.

Ultimately, achieving food agency is just like getting good at anything (sports, art, music, etc.). It takes time, trial and error, and a good place to do practice. Taking control of your own food destiny can be achieved by applying the fundamentals of mastery: repetition, precision, problem solving, visualization of steps, and tactile learning.

-Willa Imhoff is a Food Systems major at UVM. She is interested in cooking, food access, and culinary traditions. 

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