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.
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
- 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.
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.