Food, glorious food! Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Gardens


 

Reflection on my years teaching and learning through cooking and gardening in primary schools. I am currently a preschool teacher at Namadgi School (Australian Capital Territory). I also run the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden program for Years Three, Four and Five.

Food, glorious food!

Running the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden at Namadgi School will probably be my teaching career highlight. Rarely does school-based learning involve doing. That is, physical activity and applying knowledge in any practical sense. Both of which, in my experience, are increasingly, and sadly, absent from primary-school activities. Cooking and gardening heighten and refine all our sensory perceptions, and the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation’s approach emphasises engagement through such sensory experiences. Actively engaging children in this way is a counter to the idea that our attitudes, and our experiences of food and eating can change by learning with pen and paper alone. It is importantly an antidote to the myopia infecting all of us who must contend with the narrow mindedness of NAPLAN and all the other coinciding efforts to corporatise and standardise life. I have long believed that if we are serious about meeting the diverse needs of our children, an entire curriculum, of real significance and rigour, could be built around the activities of growing and cooking food. Food, without exception is essential to all of us.

At every school where I have taught I have established some kind of a garden for children to be involved with. The purpose has been to make tangible the connections between literacy, maths, science and art. Witnessing the enthusiasm of enough young people told me that those projects were but a glimpse of what may be possible. Success, however, would not be the right word to describe my efforts. Generally, a significant handicap has been the principals’ unenviable preoccupation with the limits of school budgets, or perhaps the department’s latest pedagogical turn. Serious consideration of gardening and cooking providing for good learning did not ever get very far. So it is with a real sense of elation that my school’s leadership has embraced the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden project, and given me the opportunity to develop it.

Stephanie Alexander herself is best known in metro Melbourne as one of the eminent ‘foodies’ and has been owner and chef of that city’s finest restaurants. Ten years ago, however, her concerns about our society’s abuse of food, and the sensory harm it was inflicting on children and families, saw her create what has become the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation. I knew about Stephanie from my years as a cook in the industry, but it was later, as a teacher, that I observed the development of her ambition to see children involved in the growing, cooking, and the sharing of their delights at the table. It is an impressive achievement. I can only recommend that any teacher who wishes to undertake any kind of cooking and garden program in their school to give this program top-most consideration. Gardening and cooking experiences and activities from over four hundred schools have been synthesised to produce excellent set-up support, and curriculum materials that will assist teachers integrate literacy, maths, science and art. ICT curriculum demands are also met, by a website designed to upload and document activities and recipes which can then be shared with other participating schools.

It is an age of paradox when the media becomes social; food, like porn is everywhere; and good cooking are competitions defined by TV advertisers. Many of us share Stephanie’s concerns one way or another, the discouragement of sensory refinement, our knowledge of nature, and the decline of conviviality. The pressures families face distorts our lives. Global food markets and corporate retailing leave us malnourished irrespective of our social class. Be it a life-style of over-indulging on the finest of everything, or alternatively, attempting to live on kitten fried Kentucky style, both are the consequence of corporate capitalists’ cultivating ignorance. Consciously engaging children and teachers in the sharing of knowledge about how, when, and why things grow, and cooking and eating together is what enriches us, and protects the world surrounding us.

We care about the things we love. Why then, even before our children can enjoy the natural world, do we emphasis everything that threatens it? So too it is with the food we eat. A pie in a classroom is more likely to be a healthy eating chart rather than a culinary and sensory delight that the children have made. The suggestion seems to be that our children’s ignorance will be remedied by a moralising that engenders species-loathing fear. In turn that approach denies the possibility of learning from hands-on effort and the pleasures that brings. Classroom culture tends to deny the importance of sensory experiences and the development of our capacities to think and talk about them. Rather, the argument seems to go, that to do so is not serious learning. Really? Conversely, I would argue, we do not take ourselves seriously enough.

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