Planting the seed

Planting the seed

Legendary foodie Stephanie Alexander has risen to the challenge of instilling healthy eating habits in children and by starting small and starting local, she’s making a difference.












Published Selector Summer 09/10

If you were to visit Altona Primary School in Victoria, you would be unlikely to hear the children moan about being stuck in the classroom all day. Instead you would hear comments like: “I learnt that there are seeds in nearly every plant in the school. I learnt that horse poo smells worse when it’s on your shoe!” or “Today I most enjoyed planting. Sarah and I planted bok choy. I also liked composting; we had to cut up the furry, rotten and gone off fruit.”

Altona Green is one of the 92 Australian primary schools fortunate to be participating in Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Program. Set up in 2001, this not-for-profit organisation aims to provide “pleasurable food education for young children.” This is achieved through the four core actions of “growing, harvesting, preparing and sharing.”

Stephanie Alexander is well placed to teach the children of Australia all about food and cooking. She’s been an influential figure in the Australian food scene for over 40 years, during which time, she explains, she’s been concerned with “pushing the cause of eating fresh food and eating in accordance with the seasons.”

Her career really took off with the opening of Stephanie’s Restaurant in Melbourne in 1976. She ran this iconic establishment for 21 years, which was, she says, “at the heart of everything culinary in Australia. We trained wonderful staff, we cooked excellent food, we pioneered techniques and ways of looking at ingredients, we championed small producers before anyone else understood the importance of this.”

As a result, she remembers, she “was asked to comment on anything and everything to do with food.” The time was therefore ripe to publish her first book, Stephanie’s Menu for Foodlovers, which hit the shelves in 1985.

Since then Stephanie has gone on to publish another 11 books including A Shared Table, which was also a television series on the ABC. In 1994 she was awarded an Order of Australia for her contribution to hospitality, putting her alongside the likes of Margaret Fulton and Tetsuya Wakuda.

Stephanie first addressed her concern for the eating habits of young people in the phenomenally successful The Cook’s Companion. The first edition of this huge tome sold almost 300,000 copies and the revised version is still going strong. The aim of this book, she explains, “was to say to young people, teenagers and young marrieds, don’t be anxious, it’s easy to cook, just get a good ingredient and you’re off and running.”

The Kitchen Garden Program, however, captures children at an even younger age and takes them out into the enchantment of the garden. There, Stephanie explains, the children tap into their sense of discovery. “The kids are fascinated by life in the garden if attention is drawn to the ladybirds or the slugs or the slaters. There’s a mixture of horror and fascination; it is truly perceived as magic for the children to put a bean in the ground and watch it grow.”

Although the first in Australia, Stephanie Alexander’s program is not the first of its kind in the world. Alice Waters, cook and restaurateur of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, inspired Stephanie’s initial thinking with her Edible Schoolyard. Established in 1995 at Martin Luther King Jr Middle School in California, the Edible Schoolyard is described as “a thriving acre of vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers.” The children enjoy sessions in the garden and kitchen, but given there are almost 1000 students at the school, their time in the program is limited.

In Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Program, children in years 3-6 spend at least 45 minutes a week in their school’s organic vegetable garden with a ‘Garden Specialist’. Then for an hour and a half a week they’re in the kitchen, preparing and sharing with the help of the ‘Kitchen Specialist’.

Stephanie has visited, on average, a school a week since 2001 and these visits, she says, have reinforced her reasons for establishing the program.

“Many kids don’t get a lot of positive modelling at home about eating seasonally or making food from raw ingredients, as opposed to buying food that’s been prepared or processed, or is bottled or packaged.”

I think young families have often travelled quite a long way from what their grandparents knew as far as providing for themselves, or even just connecting with the pleasures of being out in the fresh air, having a dig, putting things in the ground and encouraging their children to participate.”

The ramifications of this are far-reaching she explains, “it’s very sad, not only because kids don’t get to taste gorgeous food, but it’s sad because I think it has implications for children growing up to be discerning consumers if they just really don’t know the difference between a frozen pea and something they’ve grown in the garden.”

Not only is the program providing a positive in-school learning experience, but the children are also taking their lessons home. At a recent visit to Elwood primary school in Victoria, Stephanie was told by a parent, “It’s amazing, my eight-year-old can now read a recipe on her own and come to me and say we need this ingredient.”

This is music to Stephanie’s ears, although she’s realistic about her influence. “It would be ridiculous to claim that every child is going home and trying to convince its parent to try to take on this new thing, I don’t think that’s happening. But I do think most kids are going home and talking with enthusiasm about what they’ve been doing at school and many of them are expressing a desire to grow something at home or certainly to have input when they go shopping.”

By the end of 2012, Stephanie aims to have over 250 primary schools throughout the country following the model. This is an admirable aim she describes as, “only a drip but it’s a significant drip.”

One of the major obstacles to spreading the program is the high cost of running a Kitchen Garden Program. The organisation depends on community support as well as grants from state and federal governments.

Stephanie is therefore well aware that there are a great number of children who won’t enjoy the benefits of the program. For these children and their families, Stephanie has written the Kitchen Garden Companion.

This is another huge book that will take up as much space on your shelf as The Cook’s Companion. It’s also well-structured, methodical and ordered, perhaps a legacy of Stephanie’s early career as a librarian.

Listed alphabetically are 73 different ingredients that can all be grown in the Australian garden, from artichokes to carrots, cucumber, peas and zucchini. Each chapter details how and when to plant, including tips for gardens and containers, as well as advice on how to prepare, share and most importantly, cook, with straightforward recipes included.

Stephanie wants to see all readers inspired to plant something, no matter how small their outside area. As she explains, “Even if you live in a small apartment and you’ve only got a little courtyard or sunny balcony, you can grow something. If you’ve got a suburban back garden there’s a lot of things you can do. If you involve your kids from the time they’re very small I think their feelings about food and their understanding of food will change very rapidly.”

Of course, for modern parents the usual reason given for taking cooking shortcuts is a lack of time. This, however, is an argument for which Stephanie has little sympathy. She believes this excuse usually means, “not very interested in food, haven’t worked out how I can cook a meal in 10 minutes. You can cook a meal in 10 minutes, it just requires a little bit of thinking.”

Another stumbling block when faced with this book’s 771 pages of gardening possibilities is where to start? Stephanie, of course, has an answer, “I would suggest, start small but start properly. Start with one good plot and grow something that’s absolutely sure to fire, like salad greens. Make sure you’ve read up a little bit, and I think you’ll find that you get hooked.”

For Stephanie, the benefits of taking the time to embrace fresh, natural produce extend far beyond physical health. As she describes, it’s her reason for living, “brushing past scented leaves in a garden, looking over a vineyard with the vines glowing gold in autumn sunshine, picking parsley outside the back door, pulling a cork from a bottle of wine, cutting into a ripe cheese, appreciating a wonderful apple, setting out a picnic on a bush table, debating the questions of the universe over a fine wine… all these things seem to me to confirm our humanity and to make me want to live for another day, another meal.”

It may seem a far cry from a pot of parsley on the front porch to gourmet enlightenment, but if making a few new edible additions to your garden allows you or your children a greater respect for the origins of our food, isn’t it worth the effort? In Stephanie’s words, “get cooking, get gardening!”


Reproduced with the kind permission of Wine Selectors.

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