Stephanie Alexander believes in the positive pleasures of food. Anyone with a dog-eared copy of her ingredient bible The Cook’s Companion, or even a passing acquaintance with her acclaimed restaurants (think the former Stephanie’s as well as Richmond Hill Cafe & Larder) will be well aware of this. What you might not expect is the dynamic way that this hedonism comes out.
“I love good food and I love to feel that people can offer themselves this happiness everyday,” says the Melbourne chef, author, restaurateur and good-food advocate. The window behind her frames a garden view of vegetables and fruit trees as she describes the not-for-profit Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation (SAKGF) and its program for children in years three to six, in order to connect them with the pleasures of their food.
“It enraged me that the sort of interventions being proposed [to combat childhood health problems] were so empty,” says Alexander with a sigh. “So full of ‘though shalt nots’. I just knew that children would find those messages extremely boring. It certainly wasn’t going to promote a change in behaviour. ‘Don’t do this, don’t eat that’.” It was this negativity that prompted Alexander to look for new ways to engage with children and their relationships to food. “I just believed that in my own life a pleasurable experience and good role models were the way to change behaviour. And I felt that there were no interventions that worked on this principle. That’s why I wanted to try it.”
So Alexander worked to develop a program that would support primary schools to design and install kitchen gardens. Children would be actively involved with growing fruits and vegetables; from planting and nurturing, through to harvesting, preparing and finally eating. The selection of plants might include anything from tomatoes and salad greens, to herb gardens or fully-fledged potato patches, depending on the season and the available space. Schools running the program employ a garden specialist and a kitchen specialist, with students spending a minimum of 40 minutes per week working in the garden, and a further 90 minutes in the kitchen-classroom preparing meals from what they have grown. A key component of the program is that each school is also assisted in creating a kitchen space where the children can prepare these feasts together.
“People say to me ‘oh you’re the person who does those gardens’,” Alexander says, playfully rolling her eyes. “I just gnash my teeth when they say that, because the gardens are very visual and they are very beautiful, but the whole point is pleasurable food education. Every school is required to have a teaching kitchen, which has a dining space big enough for the whole grade to sit down in together and enjoy what they’ve made. It’s a complete circle and no one section of the program is more important than any other,” she adds, pointing out that sharing food as a group is a crucial aspect, along with community-building activities for schools.
What started as the Kitchen Garden project at Collingwood College in 2001 has since become known as the SAKGF and has grown into a program that can be implemented in any primary school. By 2006 the program was receiving state government funding in Victoria and by 2007 it went national with the federal government supporting the scheme in primary schools across the country.
There’s no question that that SAKGF is shaping the way children approach their food, with clear feedback from schools and parents, as well as a recent evaluation study carried out by Melbourne and Deakin Universities, revealing that children involved in the program were far more willing to try new foods. For Alexander this was healthy reinforcement of what the Foundation already felt to be true.
“I’m just thrilled that it works,” she says with joy, recounting a recent trip to a school in Elwood where the children made a salad of mizuna, pears and shaved parmesan, along with gnocchi and a dessert of pumpkin and sultana cakes. “And every child ate everything. It’s the private achievement that they have made this. They understand the dish.”
Alexander’s work is certainly paying off in positive outcomes, but the honour of being named Victorian of the Year still caught her off guard. “It was quite a big surprise. I only knew about a week before,” she says, laughing. But just how does it benefit the Foundation? Does it raise its profile; does it make it easier to find volunteers or funding?
“I think what it does do is further validate the work we are doing,” Alexander answers, thoughtfully. “It means that we are probably at the stage where we will get more approaches from would-be corporate partners or philanthropic organisations that would like to be associated with our work, and as a not-for-profit organisation we are utterly dependant on that sort of support to enable us to grow.”
There are currently 139 schools in the scheme, with the aim to have 250 across the country by the end of 2012.
It was announced on July 21 that SAKGF was also the recipient of a Premiere’s Design Award for Excellence as part of State of Design 2010.