‘Start Small, Dream Big’ webinar helps schools learn how to manage their own Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden program

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

The room is a clatter of children’s voices negotiating turn-taking and measurement mathematics. The sounds mingle with the noise of cooking utensils, as jugs of orange juice are poured into bowls and spoons mix the liquid with flour, eggs, butter, and sugar.

And baking powder.

“Have a look at your ingredients list and tell me how much baking powder you need,” the voice of Sunbury Primary School teacher, Natalie Abbott cuts through the chatter. “Has everyone checked?”

A chorus of not-so-small voices answers her in a sing-song lilt.

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Today’s recipe is orange cake and the juice needed has come from fruit gathered by the classroom’s previous occupants – the school’s prep students. It was their weekly class in the kitchen garden program from nine am – 11 am. and when it was their turn to traipse outside in the sun and fresh air, to the fenced-off, flourishing garden area the school community has named The Patch, the children collected enough oranges to enable the grade one and two students currently in the room (from 12 midday – two pm) to create a freshly baked afternoon treat, under the supervision of their two female teachers.

For the students at Sunbury Primary school, almost 40 kilometres north-west of Melbourne’s CBD, being part of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden (SAKG) program is obviously fun – and delicious, too.

What is the SAKG program?

When well-known chef Stephanie Alexander started the Kitchen Garden Program twenty years, ago, her aim was to educate children and young people to develop a lifelong appreciation of fresh, seasonal and delicious food – thereby contributing to positive health outcomes for children.

“It’s her strong belief that if children across Australia can discover the wonder of growing, harvesting, preparing and sharing, we would achieve meaningful change in health, wellbeing, education, sustainability, community connections and cultural understanding,” the SAKG Foundation’s Chief Marketing and Development Officer, Louise Gray, told EducationDaily.

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The program now runs in more than 1,000 schools and services around Australia, with more than 130,000 children actively engaged in the SAKG program each year.

“Schools across Australia deliver over five million Kitchen Garden Program experiences for students each year,” Ms Gray says.

Schools and services that join the program receive ongoing support, training and resources as part of their membership. This includes places at online professional development webinars and program enrichment webinars, printed resources, one-on-one online catch-ups, access to face-to-face professional development, access to the SAKG online community and resource hub – The Shared Table – as well as discounts from the SAKG Foundation’s partners.

“We also have a dedicated support team, contactable via email or phone, to answer any questions or concerns our members may have,” Ms Gray told EducationDaily.

Find out more from a free webinar

For educators and school community parents wondering if the SAKG program is right for their own school, this week’s free “Start Small, Dream Big’ 30-minute webinar – Wednesday 6 September – is open to anyone to join.

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“We will share practical tips and tricks to create engaging kitchen and garden experiences with limited resources or limited space,” Ms Gray says. “Think portable kitchen, no cook recipes, and space-efficient gardening! Attendees will come away inspired and equipped with ideas and tools to take action in your school or early childhood service.”

There is no criteria to join the SAKG program – a misconception the SAKG Foundation team is keen to correct.

“The only thing schools need is the desire to grow, harvest, prepare and share food with children and young people,” she told EducationDaily.

“We encourage schools and services to start small and dream big – they don’t need state of the art kitchens or enormous garden spaces. They just need the desire to grow, harvest, prepare and share food with children and young people.”

Although there has always been an appetite for programs like the SAKG offering, Ms Gray says there has been a tangible shift in the motivation – with students “showing an increased interest in food security, wanting to have an impact on sustainability and many seeking agency for their own wellbeing”.

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As a not-for-profit organisation, access to the program is granted through membership fees – a 24-month membership for primary and secondary schools is $1650 and there is a renewal fee of $440 (payable every two years).

From little things, big things grow

From humble beginnings at Sunbury Primary in July 2018, the school’s connection to the SAKG program has evolved from a garden club – Garden Warriors – run by family volunteers, then expanded to twice-weekly sessions with two groups of 30 students.

In 2020, driven by strong engagement and interest from the school community, as well as pressure from families for every student to have the opportunity to be exposed to the program, SAKG was formally introduced as a specialist subject, under the banner of STEM.

Today, the activities in The Patch, through the SAKG program are, education support staff member De’Arne Houston says, “something that is very important to our families because many of our student’s families do not have the time, (or the knowledge), to teach their kids how to grow, harvest, prepare and share healthy, delicious seasonal produce”.

“Our newest school buildings were designed to orientate around the kitchen garden and our students and families love taking a stroll through the space at school drop off and pick up times,” she told EducationDaily.

“We continue to subsidise the program though fundraising efforts, the annual Twilight Harvest Picnic, Bunnings sausage sizzles and we sell our eggs and preserves. Local community initiatives such as our local men’s sheds and one of our local high schools, which has a large-scale agriculture program, regularly assist our program through the donation of time, expertise, plants and produce. Grant applications are also a priority.”

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Since the SAKG program has been made a specialist subject, a dedicated budget has helped enhance the facilities.

“Our student kitchen is now a dedicated space, is fully functional and reflects the quality and standard of the Foundation’s flagship schools,” Ms Houston told EducationDaily.

But it wasn’t always that way. For the Sunbury school’s community, she says, “we started small, because that’s all we could do”.

Working together for shared outcomes

Back in the kitchen at Sunbury Primary, each small group of boys and girls has a collective name – each one representing an Australian native bird. As the bowls are stirred, and the batters scraped into the greased cake tins on each table, the teachers’ combined instructions ramp up for the next stage of the afternoon.

“Rosellas – you’re doing dishes today,” Ms Abbott says. “The rest of you – if you’ve given me your cake tin, hang up your aprons, go to the toilet if you need to and wash your hands, then go join your tool license lesson.”

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Calling a spade a spade

As each child emerges from the bathroom, they take their place on the floor in front of a screen. The teacher not in charge of the clean-up operation with the Rosellas is already in her seat, waiting patiently for everyone to join her.

Today’s lesson is all about helping the children gain the knowledge needed to safely operate the gardening tools and implements used to maintain their crops for the season ahead. This semester, the most junior members of the school are involved in the program. Last semester, the grade three-four class took turns with the grade five-six students.

“We’re hoping that each year, your knowledge of garden tools will grow, so that, if we ask you go and get a pair of secateurs, you’ll know what they look like, and how to handle them safely when you use them,” Ms Houston says.

The presentation that follows invites the students to suggest the right way to use a wheelbarrow (“you shouldn’t run people over”), the different uses for plastic and metal rakes and introduces the budding gardeners to a mattock.

Over in the kitchen side of the classroom, the last stragglers are wiping damp cloths over laminated recipe cards as the teacher washes the last of the dirty dishes they have delivered to her.

Proof of the prep cohort’s effort sits on one of the freshly cleaned benchtops near the fridge.

“It was risotto,” Ms Abbott says. “With silverbeet from the garden. Would you like some?”

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A child eats a bowl of risotto they just made

She spoons some into a fresh bowl for me and pops it in the microwave as she talks.

After the preps enjoyed their own cooking, they chose the ripe oranges that are now a key ingredient in this cooking class.

“You can follow the program exactly and plant everything when they say you should, then the recipes match everything you should be getting from the garden each season,” she says. “But you can also adapt it a bit if you like, in case you’ve planted slightly different things or have more of something available to use.”

As Ms Abbott continues to clear the cooking space, she hovers in front of the large oven and opens the door to peep in.

“Just a little bit longer,” she says.

With the tool license lesson over for this week, the children’s voices have grown noisy again as they get ready for the next part of the kitchen garden program – the garden.

A faint bleat from the direction of The Patch reveals the reason for their excitement.

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Today, Ms Abbott drove to school with a special visitor joining her in the backseat.

It’s a little lamb. And her name really is Mary.

She’ll ride back with the teacher again tonight – delivered to the lamb’s home at another nearby secondary school that offers an agricultural program, where Mary will be a campus pet.

Ms Abbott has already mixed up the precise amount of formula Mary needs four times each day since her mum’s sudden death made her an orphan and the children can’t wait to watch the bottle-feeding. But first, they’ve learning how to make hanging baskets.

With gloved hands, the children are instructed how to line the basket, fill it with soil, then plant the strawberry seedlings that will soon be providing a harvest for a future cooking class.

And when the hard work’s done, the children will wash their hands again and enjoy the cake they made – fresh from the oven.

Overcoming fears for life-long learning

The benefits for the students, says Ms Houston, is the learning of important life-long skills, that they may otherwise not have been exposed to at home.

“Sadly, there’s a lot of fear when our kids first step into the program. We see a lot of learned behaviours, like the kitchen is a dangerous place and that garden tools are for adults only,” Ms Houston told EducationDaily. “Very quickly, we break those barriers down and our kid’s confidence skyrockets when they learn that they are capable of doing things for themselves.”

The SAKG Foundation’s ‘Start Small, Dream Big’ free 30-minute webinar – Wednesday 6 September – is open to anyone to join.

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live