Students and food at the heart of it all

Friday, October 8, 2021

In 1999 the Principal of Collingwood College, Frances Laurino, had a problem. She’d conducted a survey to gauge the eating habits of her students and the results that came back were unpalatable.

They’d tried everything to encourage students to eat well, from putting red and green stickers on food charts, handing out gold stars, and giving them fresh fruit – which stopped when she noticed the school bins were full of oranges at the end of the day, and the students were using apples as cricket balls.

After all these attempts to make a change, Frances remembers being disheartened by the findings of the food habits survey. When the data was analysed, “we were shocked by the results,” she recalls. “They were awful!” The only programs available to the school were not working, and Frances felt they “had a problem that we couldn’t solve.”

Frances Laurino in 2000

The answer to Frances’ conundrum came little more than a year later, in the form of a chance encounter at the school’s annual Harvest Festival in the year 2000. She was tapped on the shoulder by Basil Natoli, the parent of a student at the College and a member of a group called Cultivating Community that had set up community gardens in the nearby high-rise flats. “I’d like to introduce you to Stephanie Alexander, who has a plan for setting up a food education program in a school,” he told her. Although Frances didn’t know it at the time, that initial rendezvous, where Stephanie took out her signature notebook and scheduled in a time for them to meet, planted the seeds that eventually grew into the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, and formed the basis for a long, enduring friendship.

At the time, Collingwood College was going through a period of transformation. A Steiner program had recently been set up, and the parents, led by architect Freda Thornton, had transformed a huge expanse of concrete in the school grounds into a beautiful garden. Frances emphasises what an important development this was, “because it was the first time that a group of parents had invested so much time and energy into Collingwood College.”

An early working bee at Collingwood College

The school also had a spare food tech room. And while it was “a little shabby”, it was full of cooking equipment, just waiting to be used. After an initial meeting with Stephanie, Frances got started on the task of convincing staff, parents, and the school council to set up a kitchen garden program. “Even after all these years I am still amazed at how enthusiastically the proposal was adopted,” she says. “No t’s were crossed or i’s dotted, but everyone said yes!”

Frances was worried parents would baulk at having to commit to more working bees to build yet another garden. But they were thrilled. And while initially Frances and Stephanie envisioned a garden made up of lines of rectangular boxes, side by side, Freda had other ideas. She created what Stephanie describes as “a beautiful, meandering, curvy space flanked by a seating wall.” Variations of Freda’s original plan can still be seen today, replicated again and again in other school gardens throughout the Kitchen Garden Program community.

The garden

In the initial years, the team ran into several problems. Staff were worried about the extra workload, and teachers found it difficult to change their thinking around 8-year-olds using sharp knives and being around boiling water. There were also issues finding enough funding to keep the program running and, to top it all off, “Many children didn’t take to the program initially,” Frances remembers. “They didn’t like the food, they couldn’t use knives and forks, they had little table decorum. The first lesson in the kitchen was a total debacle.”

Instead of giving up, everyone doubled down on their efforts to make the program work. Stephanie’s personal assistant Anna Dollard worked tirelessly to source funding, the kitchen specialist, Peta Heine, called in her mum and aunt to help run the cooking classes, and Frances remembers giving up her Saturday mornings to “go down to Preston Market to buy ingredients for what would become the day’s lunch. Sometimes soup, sometimes bread rolls stuffed with mortadella and salami and mum’s relishes.”

The program became a family and a community affair, with volunteers rallying together to donate their time. “These volunteers, mainly women, fell in love with our kids and they with them,” Frances recalls. “Both groups were changed”, and eventually the volunteers “would be welcomed each week like long lost friends.”

A heartwarming note to Frances from a Collingwood College student

Over time, Frances saw the program have a positive impact on the way students thought about food, as “it managed to convince all the children to try unfamiliar foods.” It also became an opportunity for students to learn about each other’s cultures, with Frances saying “We were also aware of the cultural diversity of the children so many of the recipes introduced were from the various ethnic groups. It was amazing to see how thrilled the students were when they recognised a recipe that their mothers or grandmothers made.”

Looking back, Frances is proud of what she and so many others helped achieve in setting up the first Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program at Collingwood College 20 years ago.

She’s proud that they stuck at it until they got things right, even though it was tough in the beginning. Because “I knew that if we could make the program work at Collingwood College – it would work anywhere.”

She’s also “proud of what the program has achieved - I truly believe that the children who participated in it will not be eating ‘take-away’ food as their main source of sustenance ever again.”

And finally, “I’m proud of me for saying ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ to Stephanie!”


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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