Back to beginnings: the Kitchen Garden Program and Cultivating Community

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

In this story we hear from Basil Natoli, who, along with the organisation Cultivating Community, played an important part in the life of the Kitchen Garden Program.


I was teaching part time and working at the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne developing a children’s garden program, when the Department of Human Services created a new position for me to manage the development of a community garden program across the public housing sector called Cultivating Community. 

We were able to fund food systems expert Peta Christensen for two days a week from the springtime through the summer and into the harvest in the autumn, so that kids and their families could experience growing food and then bringing it to the table. It was a wonderful and very simple project. A simple concept, but it was very exciting. 

As that project finished after the April harvest, we thought, “How do we keep up the momentum? How do we continue to try and nurture this concept of kids being able to grow food?”.  It was like the planets aligned when one day the phone rang and it was Stephanie Alexander. 

And of course, Stephanie is very driven and she said, “Well, when can we start?” And I said, “Well, we have to get the right people on board and find the right school”. She wanted it to be somewhere quite grounded, and I knew the principal of Collingwood College, Frances Laurino, from when we had piloted a rooftop food project. 

Stephanie wanted to move very quickly in creating the garden, even though it was the middle of winter! Peta was extraordinary, and together with a succession of young gardeners from Cultivating Community did an extraordinary job working with the staff at Collingwood College and with Frances and Stephanie, while my wife Mary volunteered in the kitchen with others. It was very exciting because we knew we were going in the right direction even with the challenges of trying to create a garden and the work involved. 

Stephanie set the bar high, and that first pilot set a standard for other schools to get involved, although resourcing was always going to be an issue. Stephanie is to be commended for her extraordinary commitment to the program and she should be very proud. 

What we've seen over the years is how the program has become more flexible, and how any school, anywhere can do it. You can be part of the program even if you have very basic facilities, which is a significant shift. You can engage kids even cooking on a hot plate in the garden, and still make it a fun, enjoyable learning experience. It can be done simply. 

I wanted to highlight valuable contribution of the gardeners from Cultivating Community in those early years: Peta Christensen, Heidi Sanghvi and Liz Moore were women who were very, very involved with the kids at Collingwood. It was quite fantastic to see the garden developing, along with the kids, whose enthusiasm and passion was being nurtured by these great people. In the beginning it was very exciting, and Stephanie was fantastic – if ever there was a working bee at the school, she would certainly come along with her PA Anna Dollard and they’d be helping shift barrows of soil and gravel and doing all sorts of things with the parents and volunteers. She certainly was prepared to get her hands dirty!

To look back now over the past 20 years, it has been an extraordinary journey and there have been lots of people involved, even down to Shane Quinn, the groundskeeper at Collingwood College, who was instrumental in helping to get the garden going in the very early stages. It could never have taken off without all of these different people contributing. 

Now, if you walk across the Hoddle Street overpass it gives you a wonderful view down into the school grounds: it’s a place to bathe in nature and enjoy. 

It had been a very barren site, and really wasn't very attractive at all. So the creation and development of the garden over the years has been extraordinary in helping to change the feel of the place and to make people feel more welcome and more accepted, and to feel like there's a bit of an oasis in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Hoddle Street and trains and buses and everything else that's going on. It’s a place to bathe in nature and enjoy.  


Basil now works in several special schools and reflects: “All of my work is with kids in the garden, so I'm very fortunate that my career just allows me to work with the kids outside.” We think it sounds like those kids are very fortunate to have such a dedicated and experienced garden guide.

The school garden element of the Kitchen Garden Program could not have been designed without the participation and vital input of the Cultivating Community team and volunteers including school parents. The Kitchen Garden Foundation thanks Cultivating Community for their important contributions.

In October 2021 the Kitchen Garden Program celebrated 20 years. It also marked the inaugural Kitchen Garden Week, an annual celebration of the Program and its people.

Top image: Frances Laurino (former Collingwood College principcal), Basil Natoli and Stephanie Alexander, from Kitchen Garden Cooking with Kids.


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