Mention Stephanie Alexander OAM, your first thought is good food, great recipes and divine recipe books. Well, how about combining that with: children, schools, gardens, cooking, passion, teaching, learning and sharing? Mix it all around and out comes the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, a wonderful organisation led by a team of passionate, dedicated people committed to teaching children to grow and learn through gardening and cooking.

Stephanie Alexander - Kitchen Garden Companion
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Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden, from Companion Cookbook to School Foundation

Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation

by Jen Holdsworth

The foundation was established by Stephanie in 2004, after a successful Stephanie Alexander Gardening Program at Collingwood College, Victoria in 2001. Now here we are in 2012, and the foundation is still growing in strength, and spreading its joy of gardening and cooking across Australia.  There are currently over 267 schools involved (of which 12 are Tasmanian) with a future goal of 400 schools by 2015.


 

Recently I had the pleasure (on behalf of Think Tasmania) of joining Stephanie Alexander and Ben Taylor, both from the Kitchen Garden Foundation, and over 45 fellow Tasmanians on an uplifting tour of three Tasmanian schools, all proud to be part of this amazing program.

Moonah Primary School

Our journey began at Moonah Primary School, who established their garden program in the first round of funding. There have been four rounds of funding to date, so by now it’s a well established garden. Walking across the school yard, we were met by a delightful group of children who simply shine with pride for their garden.  They tend the garden beds under supervision from Tino Carnevale (Gardening Australia) and you sense a strong, enthusiastic vibe.

Stephanie Alexander - Tino Carnevale
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Tino Carnevale chats with guests on the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Tour

The most amazing kitchen facilities, custom-designed with six modern work stations, are located at the side of the garden. The kitchen is the hub of the cooking program within the foundation’s mission. I found myself drawn to the jars of conserves and pickles, looking beautiful displayed on the modern shelves.  There were all labeled and ready for sale, a great source of fundraising within the school and at The Taste of Moonah, with funds going back into the garden and cooking.

Stephanie Alexander - Spices
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Handmade preserves in the garden kitchen at Moonah Primary School

Stephanie Alexander - Conserves
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Teaching children to use and preserve foods grown in their own school garden

Towards the front of the kitchen, there’s a lovely gathering space to sit down and eat together. That’s where we found ourselves sitting down, cuppa in hand, listening in awe to the day’s speakers: Stephanie Alexander, the Principal of Moonah Primary, volunteers, Tino Carnevale and then the soul of the program. the school children. “Passionate and excited are our children”… words from a very proud principal, who shared stories of a recent Celebrity Dinner, a five-course meal for 50 people, with the children cooking and serving.

“It brings together the community and enables the community to grow, uniting everyone in a joy of gardening and cooking”… words from a volunteer in the programme. On talking to the children, we quickly established that pasta is the most popular food of choice. And they don’t argue over the washing up! Now that’s teamwork. We also discovered there is no wastage. They even use the stinging nettles for gnocchi… Hmmm, not sure about that one!

Stephanie Alexander - Moonah School
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A mosaic made by the school community in Moonah (Hobart Tasmania)

St James School, Cygnet

Our next stop was to be St James School at Cygnet, so it was onto the bus for everyone. Now I must confess, I have not been a passenger on a bus for a long time, as I am usually the driver (driving four children around in a Tarago). For me, it was very exciting to be a “tourist” within my own state.  The road trip took us through some wonderful country scenery, with Ben entertaining us with a few pop quizzes and facts on the foundation. Sitting back on the bus and absorbing the Tasmanian countryside, I was reminded just how privileged we are to live in such a natural, fresh, pretty state.


 

On arrival at St James we were greeted by Marcus, the garden specialist. His enthusiasm was energizing and after a relaxing road trip it was wonderful to be greeted that way. The St James Stephanie Alexander Garden is a relatively new one, with the recent additions of an adobe wood-fired oven and outdoor seating built by Ozearth, a local team. The area is simply stunning and photos can be found at the Ozearth website. No doubt the oven will be utilized during the Cygnet Folk Festival to create some yummy wood fired pizzas.

Stephanie Alexander - Ozearth
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Ozearth combined with the community to build a wood-fired oven

It was a community effort to build the structures, along with local high school students who study woodworking. Steve Cumper (a well-known chef from the Red Velvet Lounge in Cygnet) is also a huge supporter of the garden and offers his knowledge and many  skills to enhance the cooking programme, together with Ray (cooking specialist) and Nikki (garden specialist).

Stephanie Alexander - School Tour
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Stephanie Alexander at Cygnet with Anne, Steve and Marcus

The Cygnet Aboriginal Centre backs onto the garden and they have also played a major part in helping to establish the garden. You gain a real sense of community when wandering around the garden. As we walked, we listened to Anne, the school’s principal, who was happy chatting to everyone, and Stephanie as she engaged with the children.  There were also people from the school and local communities onsite to welcome us.

Witnessing a united school and community is a beautiful thing. In the meantime, hospitality students were slaving away over hot stoves in the kitchen, creating more yummy dishes. A local pig was being cooked in the wood oven; local oysters, chestnut cookies, Bruny Island Cheese, frittata from garden produce… what a feast of food created by eager students, all gaining the knowledge that ingredients can be fresh, organic, and full of good Tasmanian nutrients from the soil.

Stephanie Alexander - Kitchen Garden
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The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation leading the way for the school and local community

Snug Primary School

After a good feed, the official opening of the wood fired oven, and much good conversation, it was time to re-board the bus for our third and final stop: Snug Primary School. Again we weaved our way around the hills and pastures of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel region, observing new apple orchards being planted, young lambs, and all the hallmarks of a Tasmanian spring… including sun, rain, hail and more sun!

Stephanie Alexander - Menu
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Menu prepared for guests on a tour of school kitchen gardens with Stephanie Alexander

Again we were greeted by a young and energetic bunch of children, who shared stories of their garden and cooking experiences. Stories recounted the day a local Aboriginal elder came to sit around the campfire in their garden and talk about local bush tucker. How they take the garden and food experiences to the bush; and about the fundraising experience of cooking damper on sticks and selling it for morning tea.

Snug Primary has wonderful support from local businesses, including Tassal who provide salmon for many of the cooking days. Local chefs and farmers are always ready to help out. Kitchen specialist Deanne talked proudly of how the children have developed and how they now show an enthusiastic approach to learning about cooking. That leads to an renewed interest in science, maths, teamwork, problem solving and business planning, all being taught in a kitchen environment.


 

Deanne has found her dream job. She is able to promote Tasmanian produce, grow fresh foods, work within the supportive community of Snug and teach children who are eager to learn. Dave and Cam (the garden specialists) help to inspire the children and create a stunning display of vegetables, fruits and edible flowers, as well as tending to a good looking group of hens!

Stephanie Alexander - Snug School Kitchen
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Stephanie Alexander, Ben and Deanne chat in the kitchen at Snug Primary School

Stephanie Alexander - Snug School Garden
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Part of the kitchen garden at the Snug Primary School in southern Tasmania

We left Snug with a bag of goodies made by the students: dried Tasmanian apples and delicious chocolate cookies, a very pleasant snack for the bus ride back. What a wonderful day it had been, to have Stephanie Alexander host us and to hear such enthusiasm and joy in her words: “seeing the happy faces on children, and to see it spread into the homes of children, makes me very proud. And to see the philosophy of our foundation continue to grow, helping to create a generational shift, and improve people’s thinking on growing foods and eating fresh local fruits and vegetables”.

It was wonderful for me to witness first-hand how Tasmanian school communities are united and involved in such amazing gardens and cooking.  And to acknowledge how lucky we are to have such great seasons in Tasmania too, enabling the schools to grow such a diverse range of healthy, interesting and unique crops. It was extremely uplifting to see how a school can unite communities. The program can increase learning potentials for children, allowing students who may have difficulties in a regular classroom, to shine in a different environment. And just to help educate everyone in the importance of healthy eating. In fact, the experience made such an impact, that I found myself outside on the weekend, fertilizing, digging, and talking with my family about what crops we will grow!

Stephanie Alexander, We Thank You

Thank you to Stephanie Alexander and Ben Taylor for hosting such a great experience. Thanks to Moonah Primary, St James Cygnet and Snug Primary Schools and the many specialists, volunteers and the wonderful children I met. Your gardens are all lovely… keep it up! It was very exciting to learn about the foundation. Hopefully over the next few years we will see many more schools within Tasmania enjoying similar pleasures of gardening and cooking.

If you would like to hear more, I am happy to chat about the day. Just leave a reply on this article to initiate a conversation. You may be able to visit one of the schools yourself, they are very proud to show people around. And finally a message from Stephanie Alexander: “Get into it, dig, plant and grow together, then harvest, chop and cook together. And above all have fun!”

Stephanie Alexander - Discovery of Food
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Stephanie Alexander loves nothing more than encouraging school children to learn about food

Stephanie Alexander - St James School
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School work on display by students of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation in Cygnet

For more information about the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, visit their website.

Jen Holdsworth is the founder of online business Hospital Healing Hampers.
She also writes the Holdsworth Chronicles and works for the
Education Department in Tasmania.  If you’d like Jen or another
member of our great team to visit you in order to
write about your business, please contact Think Tasmania.

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Map: Stephanie Alexander School Tour, Tasmania…