How Cooking Teaches Ohio Teens About Mental Health

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – A new culinary arts program in Bexley promotes mental health practices by providing a creative space for Columbus-area teenagers to learn new skills.

Kitchen of Life is an initiative that teaches teens social and emotional skills through cooking, led by LifeTown Columbus – a non-profit organization dedicated to providing students with opportunities to develop life and career skills. The idea for the program came from Shea Kaltmann’s family, who noticed how isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic was leading to exploding mental health problems among teenagers.

“We could really see the impact COVID-19 is having on people — they couldn’t connect, they were isolated, they felt alone,” said Kaltmann, who serves as director of Kitchen of Life. “We’ve seen a deterioration in their mental health, particularly among teenagers, and we wanted to do something about it.”

More than a third of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health during the pandemic, and 44% said they felt persistent sadness or hopelessness in the past year, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This led to increased suicide attempts and fewer youth who felt they belonged in the school.

A ribbon cutting ceremony will mark the launch of Kitchen of Life on August 2nd

The program found its home at 2525 E. Main St. in Bexley and celebrated its launch on August 2nd. Kitchen of Life has garnered nationwide recognition, including support from Gov. Mike DeWine.

“I visited LifeTown and saw firsthand the valuable impact of the program,” DeWine said in a press release. “This hands-on, interactive experience will stimulate both traditional learning and important soft skills.

Kaltmann said the program will offer classes five days a week and expects more than 5,000 student visits throughout the year. Kitchen of Life has partnered with a number of local school districts to include Columbus teens in the program, including schools in Eastmore, Bexley, Reynoldsburg and Whitehall.

Students are bussed to the Kitchen of Life throughout the year to attend four two-hour sessions during the school day. The program is based on a curriculum focused on social emotional learning, which allows teens to recognize their emotions and plan strategies for dealing with them, Kaltmann said.

“Interwoven with the lessons is an experience where they can be generous to others, where they can independently choose their own recipe,” Kaltmann said.

Each session focuses on one of four themes: belonging, generosity, independence, and mastery. Students will go through the steps of preparing and cooking a meal and then come together to discuss their process. They will discuss how the class made them feel, what made them feel heard and supported, and what they would have liked differently.

An overwhelming number of students go through a mental health crisis after college, Kaltmann said. Emotional crises among college students continue to rise: Depression among college students increased by 135% and anxiety by 110% from 2013 to 2021, according to a study by researchers at Boston University.

Kaltmann hopes the teachings from the Kitchen of Life program will be a preventive measure for teens entering the workforce or college, giving them the tools to navigate difficult situations.

“Rather than waiting for someone to be in crisis mode and not knowing where to turn and something really horrible to happen, we seek to build self-esteem, connectedness and self-image in a fun, engaging, and preventive way,” said Kaltman.

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