Planning, Applying, Building, Sustaining – how to grow a Stephanie Alexander Foundation Kitchen Garden

My son’s school (as I have mentioned quite a few times already) is the Demonstration School for the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation program in the ACT. The program is now being rolled out across Australia, funded by the Federal Departement of Health and Ageing. There’s a demonstration school in each State or territory, which gets established first, gets extra funding and then has a role encouraging and guiding more local schools to particpate.

The motto of the Program is “Growing, Harvesting, Preparing, Sharing”. But before you get to that point, you have to do all the stuff in that post header up there. It’s an absolutely massive undertaking; one I don’t think I really understood at the time, 18 months ago, when a bunch of kindergarten parents got the Principal on board, whipped up an application and crossed our fingers. The $100,000 that a Demonstration School is awarded sounds like a substantial amount of money, doesn’t it? $40,000 is for staff costs for the part time kitchen and garden specialist teachers for the first two years the program runs. Which leaves $60,000 to build a kitchen with 4 workstations, an covered outdoor area and a productive organic veggie garden. Then you have to find the money to pay the ongoing staff costs.

There’s lots of great information on the foundation site about why you’d want to participate in the program, the program goals, and the benefits for schools, children and communities. But this post is about what it’s like for community and parent volunteers trying to get this off the ground. It’s strictly my personal account and unconnected to the school, the foundation or anyone else.

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We found out our application was successful in December 2008, and we had a meeting during the Summer holidays inviting lots of community groups and members. We got off to a good start by dividing up the tasks into a few main areas, with a co-ordinator for each -

  • Project Management
  • Kitchen
  • Garden
  • Marketing/Information
  • School and community connections
  • Donations and Sponsorship

As the need was identified, we added Volunteers and Equity as separate areas.

I originally started off in the Marketing/Information role. I did a bunch of useful stuff like setting up a wiki and and a blog and trying to attract some community attention by writing an article for the The Canberra Times‘ Food & Wine section.

Part of the idea of the wiki was that we could document as we went along, so that we had a resource available for other schools implementing the program. But we were using free software that never really quite worked for some people and it fell into disuse. In my work life, my boss and I have tried (and failed) to get people to blog enough times to not take a lack of engagement personally. Despite the fact that it wasn’t that useful in the end, it does function as an accessible repository for all our application and planning documentation.

Left, the old “community room”, right, the kitchen shot from the dining room, which is three steps up. The door at the far left of the old pic is in the middle of the new pic.

I ended up taking over the Sponsorship role when another person couldn’t continue in it. Unfortunately I wasn’t very effective at all, due to a combination of lack of time, always having a rambunctious three year old with me and having no relevant skills or experience. I’m good at the talking to producers and making connections part of things, but not the more formal (and bigger $) sponsorship stuff. We’ve done some stuff I think is really great, like mostly stocking the kitchen from donations from school families (and scavenging at the tip and op shops). We wanted the kids to see that things didn’t have to be in pristine matching sets, or brand new, that cooking just happened with what you have. Despite some wins like this, I would suggest that where possible, you get volunteers playing to their strengths (and not trying to persuade anyone of anything while a toddler is holding their leg).

From the time we started trying to drum up some enthusiasm in the school, there were some people in the school community who were not pleased that the school was participating in the program and unhappy about the way things had unfolded.

The school’s initial application was rejected for insufficient kitchen and garden space, and the application period was extended. In that fortnight, a new group of parents got involved and wrote the successful application. But because all our kids were in kindy, we didn’t know some important context; for example, that parents had fought hard to create the school’s (excellent) performing arts program and were afraid it would be swallowed by the resource demands of a new, sexy program when the funding for staff ran out after the first two years.

Other threads of discontent centered around a view that there’d been a lack of consultation in the application process (true; but I don’t know how we could have conducted a meaningful consultation in that two weeks) and a concern that the school already struggled to attract enough volunteers to run the Canteen, etc. (For those non-primary parents out there, our school is unusual in having a 5 day a week Canteen; most are part time and some have shut.) Some just couldn’t see the point or relevance of the program and thought the curriculum was already overloaded.

One useful thing we did to address these feelings was co-host with the P&C a meeting inviting people to come and raise their concerns. People who couldn’t attend the meeting were invited to give us a few words on a issue they wanted considered. We made it clear that although our application had been accepted by the Department of Health and Ageing and the Foundation, nothing had been signed off. If there was sufficient opposition, we were prepared to pull the plug. There wasn’t a huge attendance, but we (in fact, mainly the Principal) covered all the matters that were causing concern or distress. It helped clarify for those of us pushing for the program that communication within the school community was vital, and reassured us that there were strategies in place to deal with the problems and difficulties as they arose.

A further event that worked well was a Harvest Festival held in late Autumn last year, inviting the broader community for lunch and a seminar about the four year old revitalisation project of the outdoor areas of the school, and how the kitchen garden continued that work. By this stage we’d got it together to feed everyone when we wanted people to turn up, and it was gratifying to see people tucking into to their frittata, soupe au pistou and home-made breads and observe the excitement building. We started to get some ideas about other ways to use the kitchen as a community resource, such as having the baker of the magnificent bread run a workshop to fundraise, inviting the new-ish Somali families at the school to teach a class, running a session on jam-making with the summer fruit glut and the like.

From a sad piece of failing lawn, to de-cooched green manure, and finally a giant veggie monster growing corn, melons, tomatoes, beans, edible flowers, pumpkins, etc, etc. Our awesome gardener, Rik Allan, tends to use heritage varieties because aside from being open-pollinated, they look cool and pique the kids’ interest.

We were successful in getting an ACT Government grant which meant we could employ the garden specialist to begin developing the garden while the kitchen was being built. It would be very hard to start as the kitchen teacher with no produce, particularly as the focus is on using what the kids have grown. Other grant applications were unsuccesful. Win some, lose some.

Those of us heavily involved have been relentless prosleytisers. The garden is at the front of the school, on a fairly busy road (for Canberra) across from the local shops. The visibility helps – a bunch of kids who’d broken into the garden and snapped a couple of trees one night were scared off by a guy in a flat over the road who roused on them and called the cops. He was visited the next day by our Principal bearing a gift of eggs from the school chickens to thank him. I was painting the kitchen one Saturday afternoon with a couple of others and a family who’d just moved to the area wandered in and asked us if they could look around, and what was going on; they stayed in the garden for about an hour. More than 250 people came through when the garden and kitchen were open as part of the Open Garden scheme.

There have been regular meetings and working bees and also times when the garden needs to be watered and cared for over the long holidays, or shorter periods when the garden teacher is away.  Like all community based and community building endeavours, you can’t build a school kitchen garden without substantial committments of time, not least from the school’s Principal.  In fact, I’ve left an crucially important thing out … fyrst catche ye Principal; you simply can not do it without their enthusiastic support.

Most people seem to be appreciating what they’re seeing, and I think once kitchen classes start next term and kids go home wanting to make dinner for their family more people will see what we’ve been on about. The kitchen and garden were launched a few weeks ago on 25 March, and there were a couple of hundred people there to celebrate with us; people from the Foundation and the Health Department, CIT (the local trade education body) and the restaurant community, parents and community members.

In her speech at the launch on 25 March, my friend Chris spoke on behalf of the community and touched on how hard the application process had been. The point was picked up by Stephanie Alexander in her speech who said she was glad to hear it said; it’s true and it’s supposed to be hard.  Because pulling it off, and keeping it going are really hard things to do.

But it’s worth it – in her speech, Stephanie Alexander read out a letter from a mother of a child in the program in country Victoria who has become a red hot veggie gardener.  Afterwards, in the kitchen, one of our teachers told her that since the school had become involved in the program, seven children in her class had started veggie gardens at home. That’s an amazing figure; roughly a third of the class.

There’s a report on the launch from the Foundation, and lots more garden pictures at the school’s site.

11 comments ↓

#1 ampersand duck on 15.04.10 at 5:26 pm

I think what you’ve all done is fantastic when I think of how many other ACT schools have failed in even having a working canteen.

Personally, I’m shocked at the abrupt halt in caring about nutrition for young people once they hit high school. My son’s new school has nothing but pies & chips and other really bad food choices. Having been brought up in a home where we value fresh & tasty food (interspersed with occasional junk food or takeaway blow-outs), he’s now chosen — his own idea — to not have a canteen lunch each week and pocket the money instead. I’m so proud of him.

#2 Zoe on 15.04.10 at 5:57 pm

Well, the sekrit plan is that the arrival of kids who’ve been schooled in the program will lead toa revitalistation of the High School too (the one & Duck is talking about is the one that most of the Majura kids go to).

Someone told me the other day that the “Agricultural” area they have at Lyneham High (comprising a few isolated beds, a couple of goats and a sheep) is being used with the “troubled boys” segment of the school population, not all of it. Hmmm.

#3 Lisa @bakebikeblog on 16.04.10 at 8:32 am

I really think this is a wonderful initiative. If it gets kids learning and loving food and cooking – then it is a winner in my book :)

#4 emica on 16.04.10 at 6:16 pm

What a fantastic achievement!

Interestingly, we’ve got the election campaign going in the UK at the mo. The Tories’ big idea is this kind of DIY approach – everyone chipping in to run/ manage health services, police etc. Like a PTA but for the local constable.

It’s an interesting idea, but hearing about the time and hard work you guys have all put in is a bit of a reality check on the scale of organisations citizens can be actively involved in.

#5 reality raver on 18.04.10 at 9:26 pm

Great programme, my kids school has a garden but nothing like this.

#6 Dr Sister Outlaw on 18.04.10 at 11:01 pm

Great post, particularly the bits about teh politics of teh P&C. We haz kitchen garden, but no canteen. Two vegetarian parents run classes but they still have to ask parents to donate home grown veges to boost supplies. But the kids enthusiastically compost, and the garden runs nicely.

And yes, high school canteens are absolutely shocking. Not much on sale resembles food.

#7 dogpossum on 28.04.10 at 4:12 pm

What a lovely post. Your challenges remind me of working in volunteer groups running large dance events. The wiki part was especially familiar. We found keeping records of our progress online was essential because it meant that we could just hand things over if one of us wanted out (for whatever reason). We used http://plone.org/ because it was free and easier to use than something like drupal. We also found that having every section run by two people, not one, was important. One person could be the ‘boss’ and the other the ‘buddy’, or they could run things collaboratively. Either way, the buddy system was important for dealing with stress and sharing work loads. We also found that a project manager – someone who kept tabs on everything and kicked arses round due dates – was super super important. We also made use of Skype for phone conferencing when f2f meetings weren’t possible. We wanted to keep f2f meetings to a minimum, and we also made a rule that no meeting should exceed 2 hours (1.5 as goal). We also got really strict with things like agendas for meetings and then running meetings effectively (and strictly).

I liked the part where you talked about how you could pull the plug if you needed to, if people really didn’t want it happening. That’s a hard place to be, so I was really impressed to see that. Sometimes it’s hard to let great ideas go, but when it’s a volunteer community project, you just have to.
One thing we did was realise that sometimes a smaller project with ‘tightarse’ principles and aesthetics can be a good pilot program…

This post was just so interesting. I liked the bit about the gardens visible from the road, and how that got neighbours involved. I bet there are more people in the area who’d love to be involved, but don’t have kids at the school and don’t know how…

I liked this, Zoe, and I hope the garden/kitchen project keeps on rocking on.

#8 Zoe on 28.04.10 at 11:32 pm

I am so glad for your comment, dogpossum, because really this post could be about any kind of community organised and run activity.

We tried the buddy system, but it didn’t work so well – a numbers problem. I think that maybe the some of the other places that have done this have had a bigger core group – in her Kitchen Garden Cooking With Kids book, Alexander talks about a core group of 25 at Collingwood, the first school.

I really like the way that your group organised the rules about how you would do things overtly and explicitly. I think it makes this kind of stuff much simpler if things are set out from the beginning. Subject to change of course, as time and people shift, but a committment to verbalising and acknowledging a kind of “how we intend to go about things”.

#9 melita O'Loughlin on 03.06.10 at 10:59 am

we are a small very rural school with only 16 student we were wondering how to do our own stephanie alexander kitchen garden

#10 Zoe on 03.06.10 at 11:06 am

Hi Melita – there are lots of schools with small enrolments building kitchen gardens. The closest other school to us, Numeralla in SE NSW has less than 30 pupils.

The best place to start is at the Foundation’s website. Good luck!

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