Stephanie Alexander is visiting Forster Public School on December 9 to launch its Kitchen Garden Program, which is run by volunteers. We talk to Stephanie about the program and her plans for Christmas.
Tell us about the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program and how it came to be?
I’d been following the growing obesity problem in Australia and overseas and felt it was largely caused by people simply not knowing how to prepare fresh, nutritious and delicious food. I think the problem starts in childhood, so the best way to address it is to intervene when children are still open to learning. Many of the existing educational food programs back in 2001 were well-intentioned, but they were too prescriptive – so many ‘don’ts’, and not enough demonstration of how good food can be pleasurable. They also tended to neglect following the whole food process from seed to plate; I thought these were the two most important things that could address the problem – showing children where food comes from and how to make it a fun and tasty proposition. My own experience was my inspiration – my parents were passionate about food and our family life was centred round the ritual of sharing a meal, with fresh ingredients straight from the kitchen garden. The Kitchen Garden Program philosophy is designed to ensure children are enthusiastic about the food production process from start to finish, are encouraged to be proud of their achievement, and are given the skills and understanding that will inform them for life. In the Kitchen Garden Program, schools commit to running kitchen and garden classes weekly, enabling skills-based learning that extends across the entire school curriculum. Children across Years 3 to 7 spend a minimum of 45 minutes a week in an extensive vegetable garden that they have helped design, build and maintain on the school grounds, according to organic gardening principles. They also spend 1½ hours each week in a kitchen classroom preparing and sharing a wonderful variety of meals created from their produce. The school employs two part-time specialist staff, a Garden Specialist and a Kitchen Specialist, to run these sessions. The kitchen and garden classes work in partnership with each other, so that they form a harmonious cycle. In both the kitchen and the garden, the children work together in small groups, with help from community volunteers. The finished dishes are arranged with pride and care on tables set with flowers from the garden, and the shared meal is a time for students, helpers, teachers and specialists to enjoy each other’s company and conversation. We focus on the intrinsic link between the garden, the kitchen and the table. The emphasis is on learning about food and about eating it. No part of the Program can exist without the other. To ensure kitchen and garden classes receive due attention, the Program is embedded in the school curriculum – it becomes a part of the school’s program for four years of a child’s life. This model does away with rules and focuses on the pleasurable aspects of preparing meals – we believe that positive food habits can only be created when they are fun. I wanted to set up a real-life model with real-life participants, and through my personal networks I was introduced to the Principal of Collingwood College, Frances Laurino, who took a leap of faith, and Collingwood College became the pilot school.
The philosophy of the program is to introduce pleasurable food education into as many Australian primary schools as possible … why is this important?
The obesity problem is becoming the most important health problem of our times, and we believe the best way to address it is to intervene during childhood, in an effective way. Unfortunately, not all children have access to positive role models at home, which of course is a huge part of the problem, so we put the Program into schools so it becomes part of the child’s school life. We ensure the education they receive is enjoyable, so the students actually want to learn – and they do learn that good food is a fun, joyous experience, rather than restrictive and punishing. The aim of the Kitchen Garden Foundation is for all Australian primary schools to have access to pleasurable food education, so every child can benefit from all the positive outcomes of this philosophy.
You could be accused of creating a healthy food revolution! Are you proud that 191 primary schools have adopted the program since its inception in 2001?
It’s now officially 259! And yes, I am very proud, but of course, it would not have been achievable without the dedication and passion of like-minded school principals and staff, who actually want to implement the Program in their schools. It can be hard work to change the culture of a school – and the wider school community – but these fantastic people are willing to make the effort, because they can see the huge advantages the Program has for their students and school community. The Program doesn’t just address attitudes to food; so much can be gained from it in terms of reinforcing the academic curriculum in a practical way, as well as making connections between the school and people and organisations in the wider community.
Which schools are involved in the program in the Manning-Great Lakes region?
We have Bulahdelah, Bungwahl, Comboyne, Crowdy Head and Forster public schools in the area, all at various stages of implementing the Program. It’s a beautiful part of the world, and I’m really lucky to be attending Forster Public School’s launch of the Program in December.
A really interesting aspect of the Kitchen Garden Program is that it’s designed to integrate and reinforce literacy, science and cultural and environmental studies … how does this work?
To be honest, it actually wasn’t originally designed that way! We started off focusing on the skills necessary to grow, harvest, prepare and share fresh, seasonal food, but it quickly became obvious that the things the children were learning could be applied across many other aspects of their education. Now we ensure all schools take advantage of this by focusing on curriculum integration. This means we make sure all the learning that comes from kitchen and garden classes is used to reinforce the children’s academic learning. Once you see how easy it is to reinforce maths (marking out garden beds and understanding weights and measures), English (following recipes and learning plant names), science (what makes bread rise? Why do seasons happen?), cultural studies (let’s try a Vietnamese menu), history (what impact has salt had on world trade?), environment, sustainability – the possibilities are endless! The children learn without even knowing they are doing so, and they are so proud of it. The Foundation now produces our own set of curriculum resources – Tools for Teachers – that show teachers exactly how they can use the garden and kitchen classes to reinforce their students’ learning and make it fun.
What sort of skills can children expect to gain from participating in the program?
The skills they learn range from practical ones, such as how to use a knife safely and how to plant a seedling carefully in the ground, to more knowledge-based skills, such as where the best spot to plant an apple tree is and what dishes to make with that huge harvest of zucchini. Even more than this, they learn what to plant when, how to look after a productive food garden so that it is abundant with fresh produce, when to harvest it, how to work with a team to cook delicious dishes, how to present their dishes in an appealing way and how to sit down and share a meal with their fellow students, their teachers and their adult volunteer assistants. In doing this, they learn how to plan, how to carry out projects, how to work collaboratively, how to share, how to learn from others and how to look after themselves. The amount of learning they do in the Kitchen Garden Program is just enormous.
We know that children enjoy learning from practical experiences. How ‘hands-on’ in the program?
The Kitchen Garden Program model ensures that the children are hands-on with every aspect of the kitchen and garden. School staff can involve the children in the initial design of the garden and hold working bees, where children and their families (and anybody else who wants to be involved) help dig out garden beds, build fences, create pathways, construct trellises and plant out the orchard. In garden classes, the children are divided into groups to work on different tasks, such as seed saving, planting out seeds and seedlings, harvesting the crops, weeding, watering, composting, feeding the worm farm, building shade houses, creating outdoor artwork and so on and so on! In kitchen classes, the children are again divided into groups to prepare different dishes – one group might be making sweetcorn and herb fritters, while another will be making a tomato and capsicum tart, another a ‘salad of the imagination’. The dishes are decided on based on what has been harvested from the garden – the children collect the ingredients from their harvest table, collect the necessary equipment and prepare and cook their dishes together, under the supervision of the Kitchen Specialist and the adult volunteers. They also set the table with crockery, cutlery, jugs of water and even flowers, and they clean up afterwards. The children are also encouraged to decorate the home-style kitchen with their cooking-related artwork; they do things like paint the tiles used in splashbacks and make their own placemats. The kitchens end up being really beautiful spaces to be in. I believe that the way to change how children feel about food is for them to have a hands-on experience and to learn about it from the very beginning of popping a seed in the ground, to coming into a kitchen and sitting around the table and eating with their friends.
Does there tend to be more food awareness and knowledge in children from rural areas, as opposed to children living in city regions?
It’s a mixed bag. Many inner-city children have families who are food-focused, and many rural areas aren’t always as focused on growing and cooking their own food as you’d imagine.
What advice would you give to parents of obese children?
Well, I don’t want to be the person telling parents how to raise their children. What I would recommend, if a parent is struggling in this area, is to look at what the family eats as a whole and get the children involved in the food choices of the family. They can help decide what dishes to cook, start growing some of the ingredients in their own veggie gardens, be involved in writing the shopping list and even help with the shopping. It’s good for them to know what options are available and be informed in the choices they make. Teach them how to make food that is tasty, as well as being good for them, and try to make a habit of eating together at the table, so that it is an enjoyable experience for everyone.
Would you like to see the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program implemented into every Australian school in the future?
Absolutely. The Foundation is working on making the Kitchen Garden Program model available to all Australian primary schools, whether this is through special funding or through our Subscription Program, where schools without the necessary funding can draw on our experience and materials to create their own versions of the Kitchen Garden Program.
Christmas is a time in which family and friends come together … what are your thoughts on the importance of a shared table – and not just at festive times?
I think if you can make eating together an enjoyable experience for your children, it will last them in good stead throughout their lives. Being together, talking about the beautiful food you’ve created, leads to deeper conversations about each other and the world at large. We all lead busy lives, so if you can get together at least once a week to share a meal and re-connect over a delicious meal, everyone can benefit from those experiences with family and friends. Many of my most treasured memories of my parents are of sitting round a table with them, digging in.
What does Christmas mean to you?
It means relaxed time with my family and friends. It also heralds the start of several weeks of being in the shade by the pool and reading a few good novels.
Do you prefer a Christmas lunch or Christmas dinner?
We usually have a late Christmas breakfast or brunch, as one of my daughters often travels to join her father for lunch. Sometimes she joins us later in the day and, weather permitting, we may have an outdoor evening meal together.
What’s on your Christmas menu?
Not sure yet. Perhaps blini with salmon to start at brunch, moving onto probably prawns and salad, peaches and berries, and there will be a traditional Christmas pudding! I have a big party on Boxing Day for about 30, which has become a tradition since my restaurant years, when I used to work on Christmas day. It is delightful to gather everyone together (friends and family) on this very relaxed day. Every year I try to simplify the menu, so that I have a fun day too. Always a ham, usually roast fillet, a whole baked snapper and a selection of stuffed vegetables that I have grown (capsicums, eggplant and baby squash). Various friends are asked to bring specific dishes – might be a potato salad, or a pile of asparagus, or a special cheese. And of course, green leaves from the garden.
Where will you be spending Christmas this year?
Definitely at home!
Now we have almost 260 Kitchen Garden Schools across Australia, and the benefits we are seeing across the whole school life are just enormous.