Most people can relate to the sense of community that food can inspire. It’s the simple act of gathering around a table together that inspired Stephanie Alexander AO to start The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program over twenty years ago. Teaching young people to grow and prepare food is the Program’s passion, collaborating with local governments and schools to deliver a range of health, education and community benefits.

For over twenty years, the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program, founded by one of Australia’s most well-known cooks, has proven itself as a powerful tool in drawing communities together through kitchen garden programs, supporting cultural safety and heightening social cohesion at schools and early childhood services around the country.

The Kitchen Garden Program helps schools implement community gardens and teach students how to grow and harvest a diverse range of food, prepare a variety of cuisines and appreciate pleasurable food education.

Now a Foundation, it provides professional development and support for educators and local communities, working with local governments and schools to deliver food education for young people.

“Gathering together over a meal is one of my greatest pleasures. To enable individuals to do that is precious; to enable communities to do that is beneficial in vast ways,” Ms Alexander said.

How food can contribute to cultural inclusion

The Foundation works with many schools and local governments that house a variety of diverse communities, using food as a way to teach young minds about different cultures.

In the Journal for Multicultural Education, authors Karen Block, Lisa Gibbs, Susie Macfarlane and Mardie Townsend discuss how the Kitchen Garden Program increases cultural diversity and inclusion in schools, in their article Promoting appreciation of cultural diversity and inclusion with the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program.

“In a culturally diverse school, the program enhanced the school’s capacity to engage and include children and families from migrant backgrounds. In less diverse settings, the program provided opportunities for schools to teach children about cultural diversity.”

The article also said that the findings suggest “the program can help to promote social equity and inclusion for culturally diverse groups”.

Belonging and inclusion are vital for the healthy development of children and young people, and school and early education settings are an important place to bolster this.

For Elizabeth Downs Primary School, north of Adelaide, promoting inclusivity and diversity is important given the school has children from 30 different cultural backgrounds.

Kim Meissner, Kitchen Specialist at Elizabeth Downs Primary School, believes the Program provides a necessary sense of cultural understanding, “particularly through the reinforcement of culturally-influenced dishes that reference and open discussion for foods, practices, and techniques they may not have been introduced to before”.

Ms Meissner said the Program draws from as many food cultures as possible, which centres and empowers the children.

“We talk about what the name of the product or dish is in their language. This is the same in the garden space, where students like to identify plants and talk about how to say and pronounce it in their native tongue.”
Kim Meissner, Kitchen Specialist at Elizabeth Downs Primary School

Karama School in Darwin, which has a high proportion of students who identify as Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander, as well as children from homes with diverse cultural and language backgrounds, has also seen the benefits of implementing a Kitchen Garden Program.

“Karama School has a well-established kitchen and garden program. The children at Karama love the garden and it is well respected. Many children report that cooking is their favourite subject and show great pride in sharing what they have produced in the kitchen and the garden with their peers, the school and the wider community,” a spokesperson from Karama School said.

Teaching healthy food habits

The Foundation has partnered with a number of councils, including Brimbank, located in Melbourne’s West, to help more schools and centres start Kitchen Garden Programs.

Brimbank Council, in collaboration with the Foundation, helped nine schools in the area implement a Kitchen Garden Program by subsidising a membership package that provided resources, professional development and access to guidance from the Kitchen Garden team.

Brimbank Mayor, Cr Jasmine Nguyen, said, “Brimbank City Council is really proud to support a program that gives young people hands-on experience in a kitchen garden at school. It is a great way for children to learn about the benefits of growing food for the environment and their own health.

“It is also wonderful to see the program include culturally diverse food.

“We are a diverse and multicultural municipality with more than 46 per cent of residents born in another country, and about 160 different languages spoken in Brimbank. And we are all the richer for it.

“For young people, being able to share or learn about the foods that they may grow in their home garden, prepare in their kitchens, or enjoy for family meals, helps boost pride and better understanding of each other’s cultures.”

Another school that has benefited from the program is Springvale Rise Primary School in Melbourne, where the kitchen garden is considered a “one-stop-shop.”

Springvale Rise Primary School Principal, Debbi Cottier, said, “We consider ourselves a community hub. We see the kitchen garden space as a way to embrace our community – addressing inclusion – we are really trying to create a safe place for families who are newly arrived to Australia.”

The school uses food as a way to connect with parents and foster a safe space.

“Sharing food is one of the most wondrous ways of connecting. And we’re such a culturally diverse community, we’re treated to some amazing foods among the way,” Ms Cottier said.

Kitchen Garden Programs can also provide an alternate setting for reluctant learners, those with special needs, or those who need a gentler way into their learning day.

Mary Giannakopoulos, Kitchen Garden Specialist at Springvale Rise said, “The garden is a bit of a refuge.

“Children who might not be having a great day can come and sit in the garden, have a chat, potter around, it helps them turn the switch and change their view for the day.”

The Kitchen Garden Program supports schools and services to deliver curriculum requirements as well as social and emotional learning.

Denise Stone, Principal at Spearwood Alternative School said, “The Kitchen Garden Program provision of rich learning resources supports learning across the curriculum, in general capabilities, and the overarching outcomes are met with links to Aboriginal and Asian studies and certainly sustainability.

“It is an awesome, unifying vehicle for learning for all ages. The inclusion of parents in the program effectively meets our school connection and community values.”

Meaningful changes through food education

Creating a space where children and young people’s lived experience is valued, and shown in a school context, is key to wellbeing. Community involvement strengthens this – nurturing the vital links between learning experiences, child, family and community.

“I believe that if our program was part of the educational experience of every child from early learning to adolescence, we would achieve meaningful change in health, education, cooperation and community spirit, cultural tolerance and understanding,” Ms Alexander said.

To find out more about the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation and how local councils can support schools and services to deliver this program, visit www.kitchengardenfoundation.org.au

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