There’s a small kitchen garden situated in the cultural melting pot of Sunshine North in Melbourne’s west that’s changing the way the community interacts with food.
It’s not in a local park or in an expensive gardening centre tended to by masses of horticulturists.
No. This edible garden of influence – cared for by children, teachers and parents – is located on the grounds of the low-socioeconomic, multicultural Sunshine North Primary School.
The kitchen garden at this school, operating as part of the nationwide Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, goes one step further than educating kids about plants and food.
It aims to help a very diverse group of students to read and write, and encourages parents - many of whom are newly arrived migrants - to integrate into Australian society.
“We are a very multicultural community,” Sunshine North Primary School principal, Ken Ryan, tells SBS Food.
“There are 300 children at the school and 35 different nationalities here. We have a very big Vietnamese community and the second largest community is from Burma.
“For many of our students, they start at our school at the beginning of their life in Australia. But the thing is, only one-in-10 students speak English at home. So the starting point for the children’s formal education when they come here is usually quite low.”
The school, which became involved in the kitchen garden program around 11 years ago, has developed the program into something extra special. The teachers have integrated kitchen garden lessons into the school curriculum, which incorporates science, math, critical thinking and English.
The recipes are used to teach children and their parents basic reading, comprehension and maths, while science lessons are conducted in the garden.
Conversational English skills are practiced while children are eating their cooked lunch. As they sit together around a table – that they set – kids discuss the experience of cooking and chat about what the food tasted like.
Students from kindergarten through to Year six participate in gardening and cooking classes, utilising 80 per cent of school-grown produce as they prepare meals (with teacher supervision) in the school kitchen.
The program has also helped parents from non-English speaking backgrounds who haven’t felt confident volunteering for academic-based activities at the school.
They get involved with Sunshine North Primary community by lending a hand in the garden.
“Everyone cooks and everyone eats, no matter what language you speak, so we engaged the parents in the garden and in the kitchen,” says Ryan
“Parents now come into the school and look after the garden or feed the chickens. The program is the result of a whole community effort.
“They say food brings people together. What we’ve found is that this program has brought our community together.”
A healthy lesson for all ages
Ryan explains that the kitchen garden – consisting of seasonal herbs, fruits and vegetables – is also teaching parents and children about health and wellbeing, and on the dangers of fast food in Western society.
“It used to kill me to watch some parents coming into the school, with a McDonald's meal for their child at 10 am which they wanted to be served to them for lunch at 1 pm, thinking they were doing the right thing.
“I thought, ‘we need to change the learning around Western food and how important food is in general in a child’s wellbeing’.
“We can now clearly see that at our school, this program helps both children and their parents to make good choices about their food.
“They are learning, [as a community] to grow their own food and understand that the food you grow yourself tastes different to the food you buy.”
1,630 kitchen gardens nationwide…and counting
Sunshine North Primary is only one of the many schools around Australia participating in the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation.
Since 2004, the program has been implemented in 1,630 primary schools, high schools and early learning centres nationwide. The program is among the most popular in primary schools – 1,065 primaries are involved – while 70 special schools and 237 early learning centres also participate.
The foundation reports that Victoria is by far its biggest supporter, with kitchen gardens now in almost 560 schools and centres across the state.
However, there are 48 kitchen gardens implemented in the Northern Territory, 59 in Tasmania, 71 in the ACT, 139 in South Australia, 213 in Queensland, 170 in WA and 377 in NSW.
Why kitchen gardens create good food habits
Rebecca Naylor, CEO of the Kitchen Garden Foundation and Program, attributes the program’s national popularity to its ethos – kitchen gardens teach children why eating well is important, what good food actually looks and tastes like, and where food comes from.
“Kids habits are formed early in life,” says Naylor.
“If we can build habits for kids early on, that help them engage with growing food, cooking that food, eating seasonal fresh delicious food and then sharing that with others, then their relationship with food will be different than if they were never exposed to that experience.”
Naylor explains that when kids are involved in the program their willingness to try new foods also increases.
“Many kids don’t necessarily know where food comes from so their experience of food is shopping in the supermarket – not putting a seed in the ground and growing a pumpkin or beetroot.
“We know, even for us as adults, many of us have a fairly distant relationship with our food. But if your experience of food, [early on] is going to school, putting a seed in the ground and watching it grow in an environment where you also learn maths, English and language, then you are more likely to want to try that purple dip with the beetroot you’ve grown, as opposed to not wanting to try a meal put in front of you that you have no association with.”
The program is reaping positive education, community engagement, health and wellbeing results. A national evaluation of the program, funded by the Department of Health and Ageing and conducted between 2011-2012 by University of Wollongong researchers, found it to be a positive learning experience for students. Over 97.5 per cent of teachers involved also thought it benefited their student’s learning.
An earlier university study, done from 2007-2009, discovered that the program encouraged students to make positive health behaviour changes. These changes, the research showed, were then transferred to their home and community environments.
Barriers to access
The success of the kitchen gardens program begs one question: why doesn’t every school across Australia have a kitchen garden, run by this foundation or another?
Naylor says there’s often an assumption that schools might need a big space for a kitchen or garden to be involved. While this was once true, the program has been altered to adapt to the needs of any size school of any socio-economic standing.
“To be fair, it’s true to say that schools that have a lower socioeconomic make-up often find it harder to get a program like this up and running because they have less of an ability to draw on the school community for fundraising – for example.”
However, Sunshine North Primary School got one running.
“It all comes down to the vision and leadership at a school. There needs to be someone involved in the school who has the ability to see how a program like this can be used right across the school community and curriculum.”
Naylor also calls on state governments to exercise leadership and encourage all schools of the value of kitchen garden programs for children of all backgrounds and wealth status.
“We need governments to say that running a kitchen garden of this type in your school is what they want to see happening.
“It will give schools the permission they need to engage in the work that is required to set a program like this up.”
How do you provide tasty, delicious and high-quality meals, whilst keeping prices affordable? It’s a problem Shane Delia is facing both in his business and with his Feed the Mind project. The answer for Shane is to look for local solutions, and he enlists the help of Stephanie Alexander to supercharge the school garden as a means to provide healthy ingredients that don’t need to be ordered from the shop. Watch the episode on SBS On Demand here.