Inspiration

My e-friend, merc, has not been seen around these parts much recently, for reasons – I wish him all the best. I have not been seen much around these parts much recently either, although my reasons are much more foreseeable and reportable. My parents have come to visit, so I have been occupied in talking, and drinking, and talking some more.

As is her wont, my mother brought a book for my daughters and me, and it is a wonderful book – Kitchen Garden Cooking with Kids. It is written by Stephanie Alexander, of The Cooks’ Companion (and other books) fame, and it is about a tremendous project that she started in an inner city Melbourne school. She had the germ of an idea, that in order to truly educate children about eating healthy food, then something different needed to be done.

Alongside the expanding array of fresh food on offer, there has been an upsurge in the availability of packaged and pre-prepared food. Our daily food rituals have changed beyond recognition. … The family table has taken a battering. Far fewer families eat together on a regular basis and it is not uncommon for children to eat on their own in front of a television set, where the only advice they receive regarding food choices is from the manufacturers of convenience foods.

It is the fate of the children that concerns me. Statistics show that more than one quarter of our children are overweight. Few children eat the number of serves of fruit and vegetables recommended for optimum health. Many children are leading more and more sedentary lives. The intake of snacks featuring high levels of fat, sugar and salt is widespread and crosses all socioeconomic boundaries. …

Tables and pyramids, ‘good’ foods and ‘bad’ foods, guidelines to canteen managers and discussions centred on ‘health’ and ‘nutrition’ have all failed to make changes in the food habits of our children….

No matter how much talking, no matter how much “education”, nothing seems to make a difference. I know this from the other direction. My children came bouncing home from school last week, with little leaflets about healthy food choices. But when I sat down and went through the menu plans and recipes with them, it turned out that the last thing they wanted to eat was Vegie Spaghetti, or Tuna and Avocado Salad, or even Fruity Ice Treats – too much kiwifruit. Yet they know that they should be eating fruit and vegies. (This of course, is an old, old debate in moral theory – does knowing ‘the good’ make you be good? Plato thought so (I think…) but famously, David Hume persuasively argued that our actions are motivated by emotions, not reasons, so knowing what we should be doing doesn’t actually change our behaviour at all. My daughters are clearly thorough-going Humeans.)

So Stephanie Alexander says that we need to think outside the square, to do something completely different. Her idea was to get a school to establish a kitchen garden, where the children would grow fruit and vegetables, and then they would use that produce in a school kitchen, cooking the food they had grown. They would learn how to garden and how to cook, and along the way, they would learn to eat good, fresh food.

She had the merest inkling of an idea. But the principal and staff, and the community of Collingwood School in Melbourne picked up her idea, and didn’t just run with it – they exploded out of the starting blocks, and with her help, and the help of dedicated staff and generous volunteers and donors, the primary school students learned how to garden, how to cook, how to enjoy real food. The children love it, and they take their gardening and cooking knowledge home. This is real education about good food. The Kitchen Garden Project has spread beyond Collingwood School; it is now being seeded at about 190 schools nationwide. It’s wonderful stuff.

There are some lovely anecdotes in the book.

A favourite recipe using silver beet is silverbeet torte. While making it, some of the students run out of time and have to go to another class. They are quite upset, and ask if they can come back at lunchtime to eat it, which is what they do. Who would have thought that kids would rush back to eat a pie stuffed with silverbeet and a bit of cheese?

And…

There are strawberries on the bushes. Few of these ever make it to the kitchen, as they are just too irresistible.

I am inspired by this book. My children are healthy enough, and they are most certainly not obese, although that’s due to sheer genetic luck. Nevertheless, I want them to learn how to garden, how to cook, how to enjoy food. Although the girls’ school has gardens, it does not have kitchen gardens and cooking lessons, so I want to work on a similar project, but at home, for my daughters.

vege.jpgSo, we are going to garden. This is our starting point: sandy Adelaide soil, between the garden shed and the clothes line, and close to the rainwater tank – I don’t want the girls’ gardens to fail for lack of water. The school holidays start in a couple of weeks, so this time around, our project will be to compost this soil, put in brick dividers (the previous occupants left a handy supply of bricks), and plant some seedlings. We are heading into autumn and winter, so we will be going long on silver beet, of which the girls will eat very little, but it grows easily. We are planning to get some chickens too (you can see the chicken run at the end of the shed, behind the trellis fence), so even if the girls won’t eat all the silver beet, the chooks will. At this time of year, we should also be able to plant some broccoli, spinach and peas. Given my earlier lamentations about potatoes, perhaps I will be able to put some in just outside of the girls’ gardens.

And then we will cook. My elder daughter has already started to learn how to cook – she makes a magnificent yoghurt chocolate cake. But it’s time to expand her repertoire, and to introduce my younger daughters to the joys of cooking good food.

I will bring you further reports, as the occasion arises.

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5 responses to “Inspiration

  1. Brilliant, just brilliant, some wise old person said that if we make these kinds of improvements in our lives, it improves us all (and chooks make great friends and a greater moral dilemma).
    Teaching people how to grow food is one of the best gifts we can share. Don’t forget the herbs.

  2. Although I’m ashamed to admit it, I don’t really think I enjoyed eating vegetables until I began to cook.

    We had a rule at home that we were allowed to refuse one vegetable (mine was pumpkin) but on condition we ate every other item that arrived on our plate. Most of these other items, I ate under sufferance.

    I can hardly believe that I was ever this fussy. I just love vegetables now (ok; still not pumpkin). But, at the same time, I can hardly believe that there was a time when I hated beer and wine (though I drank them because that was what you did) and tipped whisky into pot-plants if I could manage it surreptitiously.

    This makes me wonder (and of course I have no right at all to pronounce on the rearing of children!) how much of kids’ relationship with ‘healthful’ food is just a matter of developing tastes (or dying tastebuds). Turnip, like a pint of bitter, tastes better when you’re 42 than when you’re 12.

    At the same time, living in Scotland has been a depressing revelation of how totally dysfunctional a society’s relationship with its food can get. Perhaps things have got worse in Australasia since I left, though I find it hard to imagine things plummeting that fast. Here people talk about ‘preparing a meal from scratch’ (what I call cooking) as a kind of eccentric perversion. Why would you want to do this when you could buy a mixture of congealed fat and dubiously mangled chicken’s offal wrapped in shitloads of plastic and then nuke the bejesus out of it in the microwave? Indeed, why not just go to the chippie?

    Suffice it to say that the average male life expectancy in my suburb is 59. Really.

  3. I was reading about Stephanie’s project just yesterday. It’s a great idea – I wish cooking was still taught in schools.

    I have a vege garden – just starting the winter plantings. I think Nick is right – I never liked veges until I started to cook either.

    In spite of all the chef talk about it I think we are trying to sweep water uphill with the salads and so forth. My girls are only starting to eat salads now they are teenagers, and at 16 my son still won’t touch them!

  4. “The family table has taken a battering. Far fewer families eat together on a regular basis and it is not uncommon for children to eat on their own in front of a television set”

    We have a very young family (4, 2.5 and 9 weeks) and we all sit at the dining table every night for the evening meal. As it was with my parents and sibilings we disguss the day and plans for tomorrow and set policy and try to teach manners and numbers or anything that fits the conversation. It works well for my little family. We decided at the very beginning that we would not get into fights over food. Treats are performance linked to the day and/or vege consumption. Sometimes we get so absorbed in counting mandarin segments that huge serves of fresh fruit can be eaten without anybody noticing….

  5. But Paul – you know about my children, and their dubious ancestry…