A kitchen garden program helping primary students grow
'I didn't ever imagine that my daughter would be asking to have silverbeet for dinner.'
Since its humble beginnings as a pilot program at one Victorian school, the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program has grown to include over 500 schools. As a result, more than 60,000 students in Years 3 to 6 are now being taught how to grow seasonal produce and cook fresh, healthy meals.
The not-for-profit Kitchen Garden Foundation was established by Stephanie Alexander AO in 2004 after the overwhelming success of the Kitchen Garden Program pilot at Melbourne's Collingwood College, which began in 2001. Stephanie felt the growing obesity problem in Australia and internationally was largely caused by people simply not knowing how to prepare fresh, nutritious and (importantly) delicious food. She identified early school-based intervention as the key to tackling this issue, as a poor relationship with food often begins in childhood, while positive food habits are created when children are having fun.
The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden National Program is now open to all schools with a primary curriculum and aims to reach 800 schools – 10 per cent of all Australian primary schools – by the end of 2015. Changes to the Program have made it more affordable, accessible and flexible as schools can start small and use what they have, without the need to purchase costly equipment and facilities.
With over a decade of experience, we know that students who have hands-on experience of growing their own fresh produce rarely fuss about eating it. In fact the opposite is true – they want to cook it and try it, and they regularly insist that their classmates and families try their new-found favourite foods.
Independent evaluations by the University of Wollongong, Deakin University and The University of Melbourne have validated the success of the Program.
The Foundation produces comprehensive teaching resources – the Tools for Teachers series – that help teachers use the real-life learning students do in the garden and kitchen to underscore and build on their academic learning. A recently created curriculum matrix now lists every unit in this series against the relevant subject, strand and sub-strand of the Australian Curriculum.
These units, which include a range of activities and lesson plans, can be used in the kitchen, garden and classroom to explore a range of subject areas, including The Arts, English, Geography, Health and Physical Education, History, Mathematics, Science, Technologies, Cross-curriculum priorities such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures, Sustainability, Asia and Australia's Engagement with Asia.
Shifting Health and PE from the classroom and sports centre to the kitchen and garden
The Health and Physical Education curriculum recently released by ACARA shows several tangible links to the Kitchen Garden Program. These links will be further reinforced by the forthcoming Tools for Teachers 5 books, which have a strong health focus. Links to the curriculum are clearly highlighted in the unit openers, the activities and in the curriculum matrix, making it easy for teachers to integrate these resources into their lessons across all subject areas.
In the garden, students engage in physical activity: turning the compost, carrying water, digging garden beds. They learn to safely manage tools such as wheelbarrows, which requires balance and coordination, and perform delicate tasks requiring fine motor skills such as planting tender young seedlings. Units such as 'Using our Senses in the Kitchen Garden' provide activities designed to engage all of the senses, for example feely bags and movement activities. These activities are suitable for all ages and a range of capabilities.
Food and nutrition are focus areas for Year 3, 4, 5 and 6 students – this fits neatly with the Kitchen Garden Program's aim to prevent obesity by engaging students' enthusiasm for growing, harvesting, preparing and sharing healthy, seasonal produce-based dishes. The Health and Physical Education sub-strand, 'Communicating and interacting for health and wellbeing' links beautifully to the Kitchen Garden Program Philosophy and teaching resources.
The Health and Physical Education curriculum makes explicit some of the embedded learning that happens every week in Kitchen Garden Schools. Some of the rich areas for food- and garden-based health learning are the most subtle, for example taste tests and competitions to make the most delicious, the most persuasive or the most delectable fresh food-based dishes.
Schools in the Kitchen Garden Program often articulate their awareness that they are creating a school food culture in which seasonal, vegetable-based food is the norm. Students learn this through experience, as well as through explicit teaching.
Example health related units
In the unit called 'A Good Egg' students learn about life cycles and food chemistry. The activities in this unit also provide an authentic context in which the Health and Physical Education curriculum can be introduced as we discuss the influence of media on healthy eating choices.
Units such as 'Food and Sport', meanwhile, explore how athletes make food choices: foods for strength, and foods for speed. In this unit and in 'Food for ANZACs' we explore the contexts in which an individual needs quick energy – energy-dense foods – and when we do not. In 'Food for ANZACs' students also explore history and health: what is a ration pack? What kind of nutrients would we need in an extreme situation? How does this differ from our every day requirements?
Schools who run the Kitchen Garden Program have found that students are more willing to try healthy new foods, and have improved social skills, self-esteem and confidence.
An independent evaluation of the National Program was conducted by the University of Wollongong (Yeatman et al 2013) using both quantitative and qualitative approaches.
Key findings from the evaluation included:
An earlier independent evaluation of the Program was undertaken by a joint research team from Deakin University and The University of Melbourne (Block et al 2009), also using both qualitative and quantitative measures. Like the University of Wollongong research, the findings were extremely positive and demonstrated that the Kitchen Garden Program is encouraging positive changes in health behaviour change amongst participating children.
Key findings from the evaluation included:
The Kitchen Garden Program is successfully teaching primary school students around Australia the joys of growing, harvesting, sharing and preparing fresh seasonal food. The success of the Program in not only boosting students' cooking and gardening skills, but also their self-esteem, is best summed up in their own words:
'I would like to say how much I have progressed from being in the garden and the kitchen. I have learnt how to use a knife and learnt what plants go together in the garden. These spaces let me show who I am, not who others want me to be. I love being who I want to be.' Taylah, a student from the Kitchen Garden Program.
For further information about joining the Program, the Foundation's curriculum resources and the Tools for Teachers curriculum matrix please visit kitchengardenfoundation.org.au
Yeatman H, Quinsey K, Dawber J, Nielsen W, Condon-Paoloni D, Eckermann S, Morris D, Grootemaat P & Fildes D 2013, Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden National Program
Evaluation: Final Report, Centre for Health Service Development, Australian Health Services Research Institute, University of Wollongong
Block K, Johnson B, Gibbs L, Staiger P, Townsend M, Macfarlane S, Gold L, Long C, Kulas J, Okoumunne OC & Waters E 2009, Evaluation of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program: Final Report, Melbourne, McCaughey Centre
Key Learning AreasHealth and Physical Education
Subject HeadingsPrimary education
School and community