How the Kitchen Garden Foundation is helping under-fives to thrive

Blog Image for article How the Kitchen Garden Foundation is helping under-fives to thrive

Stephanie Alexander is a celebrity chef who truly believes in the power of pleasurable food education to enrich children’s lives.

Her Kitchen Garden Foundation is teaching youngsters how to grow, harvest, prepare and share food, and as a result, positive food habits are sprouting up in early learning services and schools around the country.

To get a taste for the Kitchen Garden Foundation’s program for under-fives, we spoke with its Chief Executive, Josephene Duffy.

How did the Kitchen Garden Foundation come about, Josephene?

The Foundation was established by Stephanie Alexander AO in 2004. The motivation came from Stephanie’s awareness of the growing childhood obesity crisis in Australia, and her belief that children need to know where food comes from and how to prepare delicious fresh food that makes them want to come back for more. She recognised that parents might be unable to provide the necessary positive role modelling at home, so it needed to happen in children’s place of education and care.

Stephanie partnered with the Principal of Collingwood College in Melbourne to design a kitchen garden program, and this pilot led to establishing the Foundation, to roll out the program to as many schools – and now early childhood services – as possible.

Although the program was originally designed for a primary school environment, we quickly heard from the early childhood sector that they’d like their own. We eventually gained funding (from the lovely Ian Potter Foundation for a project to construct the Kitchen Garden Program for Early Childhood.

To develop the program, we consulted with an advisory committee of leaders and advocates in early childhood education and 13 services who we piloted the program with. This close collaboration helped us develop sector-specific knowledge, professional development, educational resources and other support for early childhood educators running a kitchen garden program.

We are now working with approximately 300 early childhood services and 1,700 primary and secondary schools all over Australia, supporting them to run the kitchen garden program and deliver pleasurable food education.

How does your Foundation help educators to teach young children about food?

Within the program we guide educators through planning and establishing food familiarisation activities, including:

  • Maintaining an edible garden
  • Using the fresh produce to prepare a range of simple dishes; and
  • Very importantly, sharing the food they’ve prepared with their friends and grown-ups.

The children are hands-on and instrumental in every part of the program. We also help educators link their program to the Early Years Learning Framework, engage families and the wider community, and embed pleasurable food education throughout their service.

All of this is designed to have children as young as possible invested in their food and the whole food production process, and to fall in love with fresh vegetables, fruit and herbs. This should set them up with positive food habits for life.

The Kitchen Garden Program for Early Childhood promotes a whole-service, play-based approach to delivering pleasurable food education to young children. What does pleasurable food education mean for under-fives?

Pleasurable food education is a fun, hands-on approach to food education, with the emphasis on pleasure. Pleasurable, sensory experiences are what keep us all coming back for more – so the gardening experiences must engage the senses and be rooted in playful exploration. The kitchen experiences must be messy and experimental, and result in food that just tastes good.

We don’t teach children about numbers or pyramids or tell them that they ‘must eat their veggies because they’re good for them’. We engage them in every element of their food and suggest they eat it because it’s yummy, and because the shared dining experience is full of joy.  And, of course, research tells us that the earlier positive food relationships are normalised, the more likely children are to enjoy fresh, seasonal, delicious food into adulthood.

The flow-on benefits are infinite. Through the kitchen garden program, children:

  • Learn about their natural environment, the seasons, and how to care for gardens;
  • Gain practical skills, including how to recycle, compost and preserve; and
  • Develop life skills, such as cooperating, sharing, critical thinking and leadership.

We also know that for those children who face barriers in a traditional education setting, spending time in a kitchen garden environment helps them flourish.

We hear from parents and educators every day, that even in young children, the skills learnt in the kitchen garden program are taken back into the home where they encourage their family to enjoy new foods and bring our ‘Grow, Harvest, Prepare, Share’ mantra home.

This is also true when volunteers, parents, grandparents and families engage with the service and contribute their own kitchen and garden knowledge.

Learning these skills now means these children are establishing solid food literacy leading into their primary and secondary school years and hopefully well into adult life.

What are some examples of activities that under-fives are really enjoying?

There’s a lot of fun happening at one of our pilot services, Californian Gully Kindergarten in Maryborough, Victoria.

Each week children at this kinder help tend the vegetable garden areas, nurture the hens (Sunshine and Featherfoot!), feed the worm cafés and add to the compost. The kinder’s garden is flourishing, with the children successfully growing kale, spinach, rocket, tomatoes, zucchini, pumpkin, garlic, broad beans, snow peas and loads of herbs.

The produce has been put to good use in cooking activities, with the children making a variety of dishes and then sitting down as a group to share what they’ve made. An abundance of eggs from Sunshine and Featherfoot inspired the children to create hand-rolled lasagne sheets, spaghetti, fettuccine and ravioli (that they filled with kale from their garden).

Making bread and yoghurt are also regular hands-on cooking experiences for the children. They use the basic ingredients to make garlic and herb breads, focaccias, ciabattas, flat breads and pizzas, as well as herb and garlic oils.

How is the kitchen garden program tailored to different ages?

Children as young as 12 months are routinely engaged in planting, nurturing, harvesting and then cooking food from their service’s own veggie gardens, while children in a preschool group demonstrate an impressive repertoire of cooking skills and a great understanding of the food growing cycle.

Linda Davidson is the Centre Coordinator at Clarendon Children’s Centre (another of our wonderful pilot services) and she says that, ‘The program complements and supports our goals for teaching and learning across all areas and with all ages of children. In particular, it has helped us to embed learning about sustainability, earth sciences, healthy eating and Indigenous culture into the children’s everyday, hands-on activities and experiences.’

Ms Davidson’s colleague, Sally Plummer adds that, ‘Whenever there is work to do in the garden, the children are always lining up to help. They love to water the plants, pick the ripe (and sometimes not ripe!) tomatoes and get so excited when they can also eat the produce straight from the garden. Teaching children the process of ‘paddock to plate’ helps them to develop love and respect for the land and our planet – the very foundation of sustainability.’

The Kitchen Garden Foundation hosts an online community of practice called the Shared Table. Could you please explain what this is?

The Shared Table includes a resource library where educators can find a series of workbooks that take them through establishing and running the program from scratch, as well as hundreds of recipes, garden activities, case studies and more. It also provides real-time updates from around the country of the myriad of activities that early learning services and schools are enjoying in their kitchen and garden spaces.

Recently we’ve seen under-fives making their own grissini, baking loaves of bread, making dukkah, and growing and harvesting broad beans, broccoli and bok choy. It’s a very exciting space!

How can early childhood services get involved with the Kitchen Garden Foundation?

We encourage any interested service to get in touch with us to find out more. Membership is simple and inexpensive, and it gives educators all the tools they need to get started, with no expectation of ready-made infrastructure or huge budgets.

We encourage educators and communities to start small, with whatever they have and wherever they are, and guide them towards building a really successful kitchen garden program.

Our contact details are found at

Thank you for sharing with us, Josephene, and it’s fantastic to hear about the work your Foundation is doing.

Calling all green thumbs!

Schools Tree Day is another great way for children to get hands-on with plants. This event is happening on 31 July, followed by National Tree Day on 2 August and you can learn more about both Planet Ark events here.

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