Today marks World Food Day, a day that celebrates the joy of food around the globe and raises awareness of food poverty and hunger. This year the theme is “Grow, Nourish, Sustain. Together.” In the light of the Covid crisis, it reminds us that to build back better we need to make sure our food systems, as the UN puts it, “grow a variety of food to nourish a growing population and sustain the planet together.” My experience running youth cooking sessions with Eat Club has left me with ideas on how we do this.

Covid-19 has put healthy eating is back at the heart of public health. But today, in addition to the question of how to ensure healthy diets, we are also asking how we can do this while sustaining the environment.

Although this is the noise being made in food policy circles, it feels that on the ground level, such as in cooking programmes with young people susceptible to poor diets, there is uncertainty over how to do this – and whether it is relevant.

A lot of discussion around obesity, food poverty and teaching young people to cook seems to focus on what is good for bodies without much covering what is good for the planet. I see the theme of World Food Day this year therefore as a challenge to open up youth cooking programmes to questions of how to grow, nourish and sustain bodies and environments together. Based on my own experiences trying to do this, I believe it offers an exciting opportunity to make gains in some hard to reach places…

Over the years in which I have worked as a cook promoting healthy eating in schools, after school clubs and cooking lessons, I have found that serving food which people don’t enjoy because it’s healthy has never gone down well. Undressed salads and a ban on chips have never seemed like the right approach, yet how to boost veg and reduce chips consumption remains the challenge. For me, trying to make food that offers young people ‘a way in’ has been a much better approach.

At Eat Club I have always felt the clue’s in the name, and the emphasis on eating means creating food the group enjoys is the ultimate goal. I have always been really impressed by how willing the young people are to try different things – and making food that is tasty is important for that engagement. But I have also found cooking foods that introduce big themes is another and unexpected way to bring young people around the table.

Whether it’s World Hot Dog Day or Mental Health Awareness Week, I have found creating foods inspired by big topics that ‘open up’ debate has been the best way to encourage a group to get involved and take an interest in what they’re eating.

Now when it comes to ‘big’ topics, it goes without saying that the question of how to cook food that sustains the environment in the face of climate change, groundwater depletion and biodiversity loss is the biggest. It’s not a conventional topic to explore with young people in cooking programmes but, as the theme of World Food Day highlights, it’s certainly one that affects all of us. And from my experience cooking dishes that introduce this – like tomato bruschetta for National Allotment Week, asparagus tart for World Biodiversity Day and homemade falafel for Veganuary – it focuses attention on something bigger. It makes the sessions less about me telling young people what they should eat each week, and more about their own views and opinions.

The environmental challenges linked to industrial food are huge. Industrial food is also usually the same food linked to unhealthy diets, and the health effects of this food is likely to increase as the economic pressures of Covid grow. Cooking programmes need to boost home-cooked veg, promote diverse ingredients and cut down on processed food. But my suggestion is, don’t do this by telling young people what to eat, rather use cooking as an opportunity for them to consider issues in the wider world together. And in my experience, you will break new ground together.

David Thomson