A day in the life of a kitchen garden specialist

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

With over 16 years experience as a kitchen and garden specialist, Desley Insall shares her tips for running a seamless program at Collingwood College – home of the Kitchen Garden Program.

To ensure the smooth running of her intense three-day teaching schedule in both the kitchen and the garden, Desley Insall, Collingwood College’s kitchen garden specialist, has developed a system that relies on planning, preparation and order. As a trained chef, Desley knows the value of mise en place which translates to “everything in its place”. 

The week begins by storing away ingredients from suppliers, checking emails from students and volunteers, and ensuring OHS and safety protocols and any special learning and dietary needs are catered for. Always working a week in advance, and guided by what will be ready to harvest from the garden, Desley prepares a menu for best use of ingredients, selecting from her recipes those that best develop the skills and knowledge of each class.

The whole school benefits from Desley’s meticulous planning, as visual recipes are shared with families, and each child receives a printed copy of the recipes to add to their workbooks during classes.

Running the classes

Desley’s students enjoy two hours for their kitchen classes and in proper kitchen procedure, students are directed to tie up their hair, wash their hands and don their aprons. Students and volunteers are formally welcomed, and the lesson focus is written on the board, along with the Wurundjeri season, and questions to provoke deeper thinking. The bounty on the seasonal harvest table is introduced and discussed, as are any new or unfamiliar skills or items of kitchen equipment, and students – supervised by volunteers – follow the recipes, clean their equipment, and set up stations for the next class. 

Finally, it’s time to sit down together and share. Outside of COVID times, tables are set beautifully, platters garnished with herbs and edible flowers and vases of flowers, and candles are lit.

Between classes Desley checks if the harvest needs replenishing, and the room is ready for welcoming the next group. Volunteers are invited to sit down for a cuppa, and the learning intention for the next class is discussed.

Garden classes run in much the same way: starting with a welcome, a whiteboard highlighting the session focus and information, tasks and skills are explained, equipment is set up and volunteers are given an instruction sheet. Students are also asked to record the day and date, the weather, the Wurundjeri season, and to journal their observations.


Children and educator gathered around a set table

 Students and educator seated at a beautifully set table ready to eat


Desley emphasises that volunteers are the backbone of any successful kitchen garden program, and that she has welcomed and worked with over 80 volunteers in her time, noting that there are two volunteers at Collingwood College who have been with the program since the pilot began 20 years ago. 

When volunteers arrive for the classes, they are welcomed and given a cuppa. They are then shown their recipe and the lesson focus and learning intention, and given any student-specific information. As many have been volunteering for so long, they are an invaluable support… I make sure to spend some time at the end of the volunteer’s time to thank them and see what is happening in their lives, as well as debriefing any issues. 


Educators standing in a row, indoors, in front of boards with arvesting details

Desley Insall, centre, with volunteers at Collingwood College

Below, Desley speaks in her own words about community, philosophy and the all-important kitchen garden component: the students.

Why is the Kitchen Garden Program important to the school and have you observed flow on effects to the broader community?

The kitchen garden is completely embedded in our school culture and community. Twenty years of development and refining the kitchen garden curriculum has ensured this program is of an extremely high teaching and learning standard. Our program is unique to our school, our students, allocated teaching hours, and community, and reflects the passion and expertise of all the various specialist teaching staff over these past 20 years. Most importantly it also reflects the engagement, love and excitement the students have for their kitchen garden lessons including the support of and interest from their families.

The kitchen garden at Collingwood College has been a beacon of educational, seasonal food innovation across Australia and has taken this role very seriously by sharing and welcoming thousands of visitors to observe the students while learning. We’ve supported PD training days, mentoring new kitchen garden specialists, Kitchen Garden Foundation media events, politician, teacher and principal visits, VIP food and news programs, documentation and innovation research to the education department, working on curriculum groups, and sharing all learning, recipes, images, planning material with the Foundation and other kitchen garden schools.

Our school is renowned for its teaching of this program, and it has been responsible for increased primary school enrolments, especially in the early formative years of the kitchen garden, attracting students from many areas outside our school catchment. Parents have told me that they have specifically chosen this school for this kitchen garden program and its teaching reputation.

How has the philosophy of pleasurable food education been incorporated into how you deliver the Kitchen Garden Program? 

The kitchen garden program at Collingwood College has creativity, critical thinking, and respect at the heart of every lesson. It is in the beauty and purposeful organisation of both classrooms, it is in every student being acknowledged for their learning and having their success on show and validated always; by classroom displays of them learning, images of them in action, an organised and present teacher, flowers and herb posies, seosonal harvest table displays, natural materials and most importantly how I discuss growing seasonal food and sharing food together in positive/can do language… the “why’s”. 

It’s also about the agreed classroom norms, the conferred reasons students try their best in each class for their own learning success, and the classrooms. The way we use sensory language in our informal and formal conversations; the training and welcoming of the volunteers who echo the classroom intentions in positive, humorous and kind language. The questions that are asked, the tones used, the humour. The teacher interest in each family and their cultural backgrounds and knowledge, and my recipes reflecting food diversity. The engaging lessons I plan, fantastic recipes I write, the independent learning opportunities the students have, the ability to touch beautiful fruit/veg/herb/flowers – nature! The immediate seasonal sensory information when being outside in our wonderful garden, in all weather. Students’ ownership to explore, work and develop the garden, allowing child-like enthusiasm and their enquiries to be celebrated.

What do students say when their involvement with the program draws to close at the end of Year 6?  

Around 90% of students are very sad at the end of their primary kitchen garden time. It has always been a very stressful, but profoundly moving time for me, as we celebrate all that we have learned together over four years. There are many tears from students and quite often myself. Students realise that Food Technology at secondary school is different in its learning intention and set up, however, I LOVE seeing how primary kitchen garden students are absolutely high achievers in high school Food Technology. Their teachers have told me they know if I have taught within a group of new students, due to their skills, knowledge and ability to problem solve and be very creative with food. 

  Children standing together holding small salad bowls 

Students showing off their Pea & Parmesan Dip

And it’s not just the students who are creative: Desley’s concept of a salad that would ignite her students’ imagination and draw on their seasonal food knowledge and problem solving skills is the inspiration behind the much-loved Salad of the Imagination resource. It features on our list of 20 for 20 activities as part of the 20th anniversary celebrations.

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.

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