Throw yourself into a situation outside your comfort zone, and in my experience, you’ll learn a great deal more than stomping down the same old paths. That was certainly the case over term 1 when my wife, Michelle Boyd, generously offered my voluntary services to the BANB7 (Blair Athol North Primary School) Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden. What I found there was an edible garden that—like The Little Engine That Could—found a way to drag itself over a mountain of obstacles and defy the odds.
I’ve done many years of gardening related work across most facets of the industry, but not in such an important and diverse edible garden which focusses on educating kids about sustainability and healthy eating. At the same time, Michelle volunteered her own time in the adjoining kitchen, so we’ve been lucky enough to participate in both sides of the process.
I’m informed that BANB7 is the second most culturally diverse school in South Australia. It’s certainly more diverse than when I went to Mt Barker Primary over 40 years ago, where the only non-Anglo student in my year was an Italian kid by the name of Eddie Agostinetto. And the education system these new students are part of is a far cry from the one I remember. The best example of this is the time they spend in the kitchen garden, where the kids alternate from one term to the next as either gardeners or chefs.
The process begins outside in the garden with resident horticulturalist/circus performer, Tom. Tom gets the kids to help with every aspect of maintaining the garden all year round. They participate in planting, mulching, weeding and composting. And they really do get their hands dirty. But most importantly, each session begins with small groups being allocated three things to harvest from a mixture of fruit, vegetables and herbs. Harvesting is done first so the kids can weigh their load before dropping it off at the kitchen, where qualified chef, Belinda, leads another group of kids who convert the produce into delicious meals. In the kitchen, the kids learn valuable knife skills, how to work as a team, and the joy of being independent cooks.
It’s embarrassing to say that Tom grows such a wide variety of edibles that I have discovered a few that I’ve never heard of before. The first was a leafy green called Mizuna. Others that I’m familiar with but rarely see in suburban back gardens are chocolate mint, tomatillos, kumquats and tromboncinos to name a few.
Michelle and I always join the kids for lunch at the end of the session. It’s an awesome opportunity for the chefs and gardeners to come together and enjoy a meal. Watching them try different foods they might otherwise never taste—complete with spontaneous critiques—is entertaining to say the least. Even if their faces scream that they don’t like what they are tasting, they still give it a red hot go because they harvested and cooked it themselves. I have to say that all the meals have been delicious. We’ve eaten wood oven cooked pizzas, salads, breads, muffins, pesto, chutney, and a great spread of other dishes. And you can’t beat a meal made entirely from freshly picked produce.
Any edible scraps leftover from lunch end up at the back of the garden in a large chicken coop and duck pond. Inedible compostables end up in either the open compost bays or a row of plastic compost bins. It’s a great example for the kids about sustainability. I’ve even heard Tom point out that by not going to the shops, they don’t require any fuel for their cars.
I’ve been involved in Stephanie Alexander kitchen gardens before, and I know there are a range of hurdles most schools struggle to overcome to make them work. But sometimes it all comes together, and BANB7 is a great example. The kids respect the space because they enjoy it. They also learn things and experience something that I think will stay with many of them for life. I’m glad I’ve had the chance to experience it close up, and I believe any school who can make it work are doing something special.