Victor, nine, talks of his first experience with Italian cheese: ‘Today at cooking we had to grate cheese. It tasted like feet and vomit mixed together’. A Grade 5 student at Melbourne’s Collingwood College, he and his mates were making pesto sauce with basil just picked from their school’s herb garden.
Rewind twelve months, and welcome to year one of Collingwood College’s Kitchen Garden. By the garden gates and behind it all is Australia’s most famous chef, Stephanie Alexander, and her idea to teach children about real food. ‘I had been pondering the problem of how, if at all, children learn about food,’ she says. ‘For many children there is no way they can relate the food they see in bottles, packets and jars with soil, sunshine, ripeness and satisfying activity.’
She worried that ‘As young adults, many are tentative in their efforts to feed themselves and are unable to offer themselves one of life’s most accessible joys, sharing delicious food with family and friends every day’.
Convinced that these changes could not come about from lectures, nutritional charts and graphs, she developed the idea of working with a group of children to create a living and breathing kitchen garden and then preparing and cooking the harvested produce. The concept is somewhat similar in theory to Californian chef Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard. The driving idea behind it all, Alexander explains, ‘is to give children a greater enjoyment of flavor and texture, a better understanding of cultural and culinary differences and an increased understanding of the relationship between growing things and caring for the environment’.
So, this time last year and after some initial enquiries, Alexander crossed paths with the perfect school for her project, and more importantly a supportive principal, Frances Laurino of Collingwood College. After a series of meetings, they decided to go ahead with a kitchen garden for students from grades 3-6 ranging in age from nine to thirteen. Collingwood is an inner city public school surrounded by high-rise buildings and very little green. Over 30 nationalities are represented on the roll.
The garden got off the ground, so to speak, in the early winter months of 2001. Alexander, Laurino and Co. had wasted little time in rounding up funding, a group of volunteers, an architect and a gardener to plan out the space. Parents volunteered their help and the kids had a marvelous time building up the garden beds, getting covered in mud and wobbling about behind wheelbarrows of soil.
The first crops to go in were raspberry canes and an almond tree. Once the ground warmed up, a herb garden was established, plus a composting area, worm farm, numerous raised vegetable beds and a fruit tree orchard. There was an old kitchen on the school grounds, and though unused for several years, it only needed a good clean plus a few touches of TLC and it too was ready to go.
As Peta Christensen, the project’s head gardener, told the Collingwood open-day gathering last month, ‘The children have been involved with nearly every process from designing, building, creating pathways, soil testing, planting trees, tending the garden, propagating and saving seeds, to making scarecrows’.
Christensen’s job is to look after the garden and keep six classes of children busy for one period of an hour each week. They then spend two periods in the kitchen, preparing a complete meal, enjoying it together and cleaning up afterwards.
Alexander spends half a day in the kitchen per week, working with Peta Heine, the Kitchen Garden’s cook, in creating the dishes according to what Christensen figures will be in season and ripe to harvest.
Of course, there were always going to be hurdles. Like the time the first row of garden beds collapsed into a soggy heap thanks to a damp, low location and quite a bit of rain. The beds were absorbing too much water, drowning the plants and killing off the goodness in the soil.
Christensen called a group of children and volunteers who she swiftly put to work with spades, digging out a new drainage system. ‘The kids really seem to love digging,’ she noted, before continuing with the happy news that, ‘After a few setbacks, the garden really is flourishing’. Remarkably (considering the open location), it remains vandal- and damage-free.
Setbacks aside, the first crop, a healthy windfall of beetroot, was harvested in November, and Heine and Alexander soon had the children whipping up batches of beetroot and chocolate chip muffins and warm beetroot salads with balsamic and dill. Silverbeet was the next bumper crop, and the kitchen team showed the children how to use it in dishes such as silverbeet stewed in olive oil, currants and pine nuts, silverbeet with cheese sauce and breadcrumbs and marinated feta cheese wrapped in silverbeet leaves and grilled.
Part of the broad bean crop was turned into a dip puréed with mint, while the tomatoes were mixed into a summer salad with mint, spring onion and sang choy bao. Any produce the garden can’t supply is donated by Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market. As Anna Dollard, from Alexander’s office says, ‘’The garden will never be entirely self-sufficient, it just isn’t feasible to plant out the whole school’.
Anna continues, ‘The dishes are simple, but there’s no dumbing down for kids – it’s real food, not baby food and they appreciate that they’re being treated like grown-ups’.
Caitlin, another Year 5 student had this to say about her favorite lesson: ‘Me and Serhat made pasta with dough. It was a lot of hard work. The best part was putting the pasta in the pasta machine and turning the handle so the pasta comes out. The delicious bit was eating it. That was the bestest pasta ever’.
Despite the odd strong first reaction, such as Victor’s vomity response to Parmesan, Alexander reports that the children are ‘wildly enthusiastic’ about their project’. She notes, however, that, ‘It is noticeable that many of them are more likely to eat alone in front of a television set than at a shared table, and table behavior reflects this. Another challenge!’.
So, one year on, the garden is running as smoothly as nature’s unpredictability allows. While still spending a couple of hours a week at Collingwood, Alexander is now drawing up plans for stage two, the establishment of a Kitchen Garden Foundation to spread the concept to schools around Australia.
Fast-forward another year, and hopefully there’ll many more schools with their own Kitchen Gardens and their own stories to tell.
Sophie Herron, an Australian journalist, previously a features writer for Australian Table magazine, is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office editorial team
Photo: Stephanie Alexander working with the kids (by P. Christensen)