A day in the life of a kitchen garden

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

This article originally appeared on the Smudge Eats website. It was written by Tula Wynyard, who visited kitchen and garden classes at Westgarth Primary School, with photography by Bianca Cuffia.

There has been a quiet revolution in primary schools – real food is back. 

As a foodie, cook and writer, I believe that hands-on cooking and gardening skills are invaluable in a world where we have an increasingly tenuous connection with how our food is produced. I was brought up on school canteen specialties that to all appearances seemed to have sprung into being fully formed in plastic packages. We didn’t know, or care, about where our food came from or the processes involved. Are today’s children any different? I set out to investigate.

The Kitchen Garden Foundation, established by passionate chef and produce advocate Stephanie Alexander AO, is known for its work in changing the way primary school children experience food since 2001, when the first Kitchen Garden Program was piloted at Melbourne’s Collingwood College. Interested by the Kitchen Garden Foundation and wanting to find out how the Kitchen Garden Program works, I spoke to the Specialists at Westgarth Primary School, Mary and Virginia, who were kind enough to let me in on their lessons to experience a day in the kitchen garden.

Garden Specialist, Virginia oversees the garden teams: this week it was the Hot Potatoes, the White Watermelons, the Magic Mangoes and the Pikachu Parsleys. Students set about dissecting and drawing a pomegranate, identifying leaf shapes and making patterns out of the pigment, looking after the fruit trees about to go into dormancy and planting sweet pea seeds.

The students also cleared out a garden bed from the previous week and found potatoes, a discovery they were very eager to share with me. “You would think they had found gold,” said one of the teachers. These surprises and discoveries maintain their interest in the somewhat magical chemistry of food – seedlings popping from the soil, fruits ripening, bread rising.

Stepping into the kitchen, the harvest table at the front of the kitchen-classroom showcased the week’s best picks from the garden, and Kitchen Specialist Mary talked the students through the morning’s cooking activities, dividing them into groups to work with the volunteers. The volunteers, mostly parents, are there to supervise, allowing the young cooks and gardeners as much autonomy as possible.

Patience, enthusiasm and flexibility are the key qualities for Specialists and volunteers: “Some days a certain activity isn’t working and you just try something else and go with the flow,” Virginia laughed. Generally, the kids are excited about cooking and excited about eating what they’ve made. Harry told me about looking after the herb beds over the holidays, while Jess showed me an illustration she had done of grating vegetables for a zucchini slice she made at home.

The students’ work in the garden provides the basis for their kitchen lessons, as they know what’s in season and how it has been grown. Lately, the kids have been working to protect the fruit trees from birds and curious passers-by – they have been crafting mesh pouches from old curtains to wrap around the developing fruit. To the great excitement of the children, some of the fruit was ready to pick, and a small group ventured into the garden in search of a ripe pomegranate. Mary suggested the adult facilitate the selection of the fruit and the children to pluck it from the tree, but the kids already had their eyes on the prize – a plump ruby pomegranate, wrapped in its little protective pouch.

The menu for the day’s class was ANZAC Day-themed, inspired by both Australian and Turkish food: a leafy salad with pomegranate, lentil dahl with zucchini from the garden, wattleseed damper and poached apples with mint, yoghurt, ANZAC crumble and a drizzle of pomegranate dressing. It’s a far cry from the school food I grew up on, which was geared to efficiency and economy.

The fourth graders’ practical kitchen skills are impressive – they honed their knife skills on onions for the dahl, kneaded dough for the damper and were always at the ready to alert everyone when the volunteers were carrying hot pots. Many of these little cooks were keen to demonstrate their safe knife skills to me, showing off their ‘bear claw’ and slicing away from their fingers.

When we sat down to taste the creations, a few students picked the lentil dahl as their favourite dish of the day.

The language used in classes encourages children to describe colour, texture, smell and flavour. Food is not branded as ‘weird’ or ‘healthy’. There may be things they don’t like, but nothing is ever positioned as difficult or an acquired taste. A large part of gaining the kids’ trust is that the produce is prepared at its peak to make the most of the flavour and texture – no under-ripe fruits or boiled vegetables here. The Kitchen Garden Program may be a child’s first exposure to a certain ingredient and it’s important to make it as delicious an experience as it can be.

In a way, the Kitchen Garden Program makes practical use of more abstract, academic skills too. Maths is everywhere: sharing into equal portions requires division, recipes need multiplication, reading scales involves adding and subtraction, and cutting into fractions is key to ensuring no tummy goes hungry. Virginia noted that the art of conversation is one of the most important skills – leadership, planning, sharing and communication follow through in both kitchen and garden classes.

A decade old, the Kitchen Garden Program at Westgarth is one of the best established and fully equipped, set up using a government grant that unfortunately is no longer available. To keep the program running, parents pay a small annual levy for consumables and equipment. The focus is on a maintaining a closed loop system – the kids put the leftovers of their ‘brain-food’ (fruits and vegetables) in classroom compost bins, ready to go to the worm farm or the compost heap. Milk bottles are recycled into labels for plantings, and fruit tree prunings are woven into supports for climbing plants.

Now, the Kitchen Garden Foundation program is represented in more than 1600 schools and learning spaces around Australia. The beauty of the program is that students experience every part of the food production process – planting, tending, harvesting, cooking, eating and degrading – with equal focus. The rewards of each step don’t pass unacknowledged. The lesson here is not just literacy and numeracy, but an understanding of the natural world and their place in it.

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