Stephanie Alexander believes the best way to influence children’s eating habits for life is to get them excited about fresh food, engaging their curiosity and imagination. The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program does just that, giving kids in primary schools around Australia hands-on experience in the garden and kitchen, letting them explore as they learn lifelong lessons about eating well.
How would you describe the philosophy of the Kitchen Garden Program?
In its broadest possible terms, the philosophy is about encouraging kids to develop positive food habits by introducing a program which they enjoy. I really wanted kids to develop a broad understanding about everything to do with good food, but I wanted it to happen in a way that they enjoyed everything they were finding out – whether it was in the garden, or in the kitchen setting, or sitting around a table; whether it was talking about the food, or understanding the relevance of looking after the environment in order for plants to grow. We do find that by engaging the curiosity of kids as well as their taste buds, you’ve got more chance of influencing their behaviour positively.
“Whatever else we make, there’s always a salad on offer, so they get used to the idea of having green leaves with their meals.”
What sort of feedback do you get from parents and teachers?
The feedback we get almost on a daily basis from parents, principals and teachers is always positive. I don’t believe in 13 years I have heard a negative remark, ever. Every parent comes up to me and says, “This has made such a difference to my child – he or she is much more interested in what’s going on at home in the kitchen, they make suggestions when we go shopping, they want to help cook.” Another thing parents say is that their kids are much more interested in tasting different foods. We find that they will always eat something they’ve made themselves; they’re very proud of it.
What parts of the program do the kids get most excited about?
I’d have to say it’s the eating part! Not so much just about putting food in their mouths – although they do enjoy that very much – but they also love the social thing of sitting around the table with their friends and the adult volunteers. We find that for many children, sitting around a table and having food on platters passed to each other is a new experience, and that’s sad in a way I think. So much good conversation happens around the table.
What are some of the key messages children should learn about healthy eating?
We always stress that fresh is best, and fresh usually means local as well. Of course, you can’t assume people can always grow their own food, but we can say to them the shorter distance that food has travelled, the better it’s going to taste. We also like to encourage an understanding of the seasons, that the seasons offer different things at different times of the year.
The other main thing is that whatever else we make, there’s always a salad on offer, so they get used to the idea of having green leaves with their meals. In several schools they ask the kids to make a ‘salad of the imagination’ – and all sorts of things go into those salads!
“We want healthier, happier kids, who get out there in the fresh air and dig and wheelbarrow, and gather around the table and enjoy what they’ve made.”
What can parents do to continue some of these lessons at home?
The obvious response to that is if the parents are food lovers the children will be too – if there’s always been a fruit bowl in the middle of your kitchen bench, that’s more likely to be just a part of your life long-term. It’s not always the case, but positive modelling is still the most important thing. The best thing the parents can do is walk the walk. If your normal dinners always have a salad or fresh vegetables, you’re halfway there.
What is your vision for the future of the Kitchen Garden Program?
My original vision hasn’t changed – and that is, I would love to feel that every child in Australia has some contact with a positive food education program at some point in their primary school years. Now clearly that’s a very big wish, and that’s why we set our sights first of all on establishing the program in 10% of schools. The program itself may change in the next phase, but what won’t change is my belief that this is the way to influence kids to eat better for the future. That’s the end aim – we want healthier, happier kids, who get out there in the fresh air and dig and wheelbarrow, and gather around the table and enjoy what they’ve made.
The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation is a not-for-profit health promotion organisation. Find out more at kitchengardenfoundation.org.au
Medibank is proud to be Principal Partner of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation.