BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — Until two weeks ago, University of Vermont nursing student Marguerite Swick would regularly drive to a local supermarket to buy easy-to-prepare food, like boxes of instant macaroni and cheese, because she didn't think she had time to prepare healthier food.
But that was before she took a summer environmental studies class that taught her and her classmates how to eat local and how it's not any harder to prepare non-processed foods that are healthier and more economical than the food she had been accustomed to.
"We've learned so many techniques that are simple and easy and quick," said Swick, a senior nursing student from Asbury Park, N.J. "I'd never cooked kale until yesterday. And now I feel like an expert."
Professor Cynthia Belliveau has been teaching the Environmental Cooking course for five years. During the summer, it runs four hours a day for two weeks.
The goals of the course are to teach students how to create nutritious meals and to ensure that food production systems are environmentally sensitive.
"Even though the students think they're learning to cook, they're really cooking to learn," said Belliveau.
A number of colleges across the country are teaching similar courses designed to connect students with the food they eat.
At Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., a course called Biochemistry of Food and Cooking is "wildly popular," said Jason Tor, an associate professor of microbiology who teaches the course.
"I think a lot of students are coming to college with a lot of interest and curiosity about food that they're not necessarily being exposed to at home," Tor said. "Increasingly, there's maybe two generations of people who have been raised largely on processed foods, those boxed mac and cheeses. My parents were. I was."
Despite the growing popularity of farmer's markets and grocery stores loaded with high-quality produce, many students remain removed from how to best use those foods, Tor said.
"The students that we're seeing coming to the college now, they have a strong social and political views on these things," he said. "But they don't have a lot of experience."
Belliveau wanted to show students that even those in challenging circumstances — like immigrants — make the time to cook wholesome food like they used to eat in their native countries using natural ingredients. She brought in a woman from Nepal to talk with the class about how she still cooks Nepalese food while living in Vermont and buying ingredients locally.
"There is this preconception that Americans don't have time, don't have money to be able to cook and to make good food and eat healthy," Belliveau said.
Belliveau said the course has been giving students a new appreciation for food.
"I get letters. Some people do master's work in food system. Some have gone on to culinary school," Belliveau said.
Last week in class, Swick and her classmates made open-faced blueberry pies and an onion tart.
Swick said she took the course to fulfill a graduation requirement for environmental studies, but she also likes to cook.
She's learned how to shop, picking out economical but healthy foods. She's also learned how to compost and how to understand the difference between organic and conventionally grown food and what to look for and buy at grocery stores.
"I'm having a lot of fun," Swick said.