Lessons from the vegie patch

G Magazine

Growing and eating your own food is a great way to teach kids science, maths and reading, with a delicious aftertaste!

Stephanie Alexander in kitchen garden

The program's founder, Stephanie Alexander.

Credit: Simon-Griffiths


A thriving garden at Victoria's Altona Green Primary School.

Credit: Andrew Worssam

Bondi Public School

Bondi Public School in NSW setting up their garden.

Credit: Prudence Murphy

Bondi Public School2

Bondi Public School in NSW setting up their garden.

Credit: Prudence Murphy

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For most kids, Brussels sprouts are no cheering matter. But the children at Collingwood College in inner city Melbourne are different. When they’re told they’ll be sautéing their school-grown Brussels sprouts with butter and shallots, spontaneous cheers break out.

The reason these kids are different? The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation (SAKGF) program. Theirs was the first school to take part in 2001 and now the organic food culture is so ingrained that sprouts can lead to jubilation in a school where greens were previously a mystery to some kids.

Going from a school where some children had never eaten a green vegetable in their lives to one where the canteen is run without packaging and serves largely vegetarian meals might seem miraculous. But the founder of the program, Australian chef and restaurateur Stephanie Alexander, knew getting children to grow their own food was key to changing their views and habits.

“It just seemed to me absolutely as obvious as the nose on your face that you cannot expect children to develop healthy eating habits if they are not being modelled in their lives,” says Alexander.

She could see that the negative messages about what kids shouldn’t be eating were of no interest to children, but that once they had a hand in growing and preparing food, a child’s pride and self esteem became mingled with the carrots and silverbeet on their plates. For Alexander, the value of the program has always been to turn children into food lovers who understand the pleasures of good, fresh and, importantly, sustainable food.

The SAKGF program funds schools to set up a fruit and vegie garden and kitchen. Every child in years three to six spends one 45-minute lesson a week tending the garden, feeding, composting, watering and exploring the plants. They then spend a 90-minute lesson in the kitchen preparing and cooking the food they have grown, serving and eating it. As the name suggests, the kitchen and the garden are both integral parts of the program.

According to Kallista Primary School principal Barbara Rose, whose Victorian school has been involved in the program for two years, the benefits of the program go way beyond an understanding of how plants grow. She says that boys are especially engaged with the program because they use it to learn maths and science concepts in a very practical way. “One class is learning about simple machines, for example, so they are looking at levers and tools in the kitchen: something like a can opener. So science goes right through the activity.”

While kids are picking up biology, botany, maths and literacy from digging, watering, and following recipes, they also gain a practical understanding of environmental sustainability. Seeing how their plants react to environmental changes, understanding soil health and gaining practical skills like seed saving and composting take children’s fears about environmental damage and give them a positive outlet for making a difference.

Thanks to $12.8 million worth of new federal funding, the SAKGF program is now being rolled out nationally. One of the first schools to participate in the wider national program is Bondi Public School, the demonstration school for the program in NSW, which started its own smallish vegie patch a few years ago. Now in the thick of building the kitchens and larger vegie beds, school principal Michael Jones says the kids have responded already. “The kids are taking the ideas back to their homes. We now have a number of children who have a tomato plant at home in a vegie bed or pot,” he says. Quite an achievement for a suburb as densely populated as Bondi, where many families live in units.

Not every school has enough space to participate fully in the SAKGF program, so some principals are thinking laterally. Bourke Street Primary along with Paddington Public School, both in Sydney’s heavily populated inner city, are banding together to use playground space from both schools, and possibly other local sites, to set up a garden and kitchen in 2010.

Newtown Public School, in Sydney’s inner west, established its own organic vegie garden two years ago. While it’s only around 40 square metres in size, too small to participate in the SAKGF program, it is nevertheless large enough to get the children involved in the process of composting, tending and harvesting, preparing and eating the produce. Any surplus is sold to the wider community at a market stall.

An unexpected benefit of the kitchen garden program for founder Alexander has been a rekindling of her interest in vegetable gardening. Since the program began she has been progressively converting her own decorative garden into a productive one. The joy she gets from growing and then cooking her own food has spilled over into a new book, Kitchen Garden Companion, launched in October 2009. The book, in Alexander’s trademark comprehensive style, is a guide to growing and cooking straight from the garden. “I can’t exaggerate the pleasure I get out of picking things myself and knowing that I am largely self sufficient in terms of vegetables,” she says.

Is your school short on space? Think outside the box!

• If your school can’t commit the necessary space, consider other options like teaming up with other schools.
• Become an affiliated school with the SAKGF – for a small fee these schools can download a manual which holds a wealth of knowledge gleaned from eight years of setting up kitchen gardens in schools.
• Approach local businesses about providing moveable vegie garden beds in old rainwater tanks or wine barrels.
• Start small: Bondi Public School started with its own small patch of garden before committing to the full program.

How to set up a garden in your school:

• Get your school community excited about the program: a decent amount of commitment is required from the whole community to make it work.
• Go to the SAKGF website: www.kitchengardenfoundation.org.au and download the information pack and form.
• Draw on skills from the local community: architects, landscape gardeners, chefs and doctors all have a vested interest in helping the local school program thrive.