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.


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.


Pamela’s eating Creamed Corn and Charcoaled Lizards


Instalments one , two, three and four.

I’m in lovely Warakurna community at the moment, located at the base of the Rawlinson Ranges in Western Australia. The remote Giles weather station, located just up the road, was built in 1956 and was the first permanent colonial occupation of the area for hundreds of kilometres in any direction. Many older people living at Warakurna now were children at the time, their families living independent existences centred around the myriad of rock holes and hunting grounds scattered throughout the ranges.

By virtue of its tenure as a piece of Western Australian Aboriginal reserve excised by the Commonwealth government fifty years ago, the weather station is the only place in the entire Ngaanyatjarra Lands where alcohol can legally be consumed, and officially only by the station’s six employees. Have I considered dropping into the weather station to say hi and flashing my big blue eyes in the hope of a cold one? Not for a moment. My research permit is far too valuable. Luckily for us, Coopers make a convincing birell (brewed without alcohol) that tastes great straight out of the freezer. While barbecuing steaks over our fire pit on Saturday night, for a brief moment I almost forgot it wasn’t the real thing.

With some time on my hands over Easter, some of the ladies organised to go out hunting for tirnka (little goannas). Armed with crowbars as digging sticks and billy cans as shovels, 8 women and 2 dogs packed into a troopie and made our way to tirnka country.


Tirnka country

We wandered through the bush for a couple of hours, stopping to dig at holes where there was evidence of recent action. It was a very successful hunt in the end, with eleven (!) tirnka bagged. We made a fire, sat down with a cup of tea and proceeded to cook up the catch. The preparation process involves removing gut then burning off the skin in the open flame for a couple of minutes. The lizards are then buried in coals and left to cook for about twenty minutes. The cooked flesh is delicious – pale white, smooth and tasty –hints of chicken (!) and fish and just a little bit smoky. No salt required. We got back to town on dusk, the ladies subsequently missing the Easter Sunday prayer meeting and making me three hours late for a sausage sizzle being hosted by the neighbours. Not good manners, but at the end of the day I think we were all where we really wanted to be.


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Citizen food journalism – how to get a moist pork

The food and wine section of The Canberra Times had an ad last week which piqued my curiosity:

It reads:

Red Hill Butcher Shop

If you are after something special from your local butcher shop, make sure you visit Red Hill. The owners smoke their own hams on the premises, have Certified Angus Beef and moisture-infused pork and sell a variety of home-made meals and treats.

They even have a selection of wines from Mount Majura and Lerida Estate Wineries to perfectly complement that medium-rare steak.

Moisture infused pork, hey? In the olden days, when pigs were fat, they didn’t need any moisture infusions. And wasn’t there a moisture infused ham scandal a while ago? So I called the butcher to find out what they meant. For those outside Canberra, Red Hill is one of the oldest and fancy-pantsest suburbs in town, full of large homes on large blocks and lots of very long established money residents.

Tony the Butcher was at pains to point out that they were advertising the “moisture infusion” not just because they had to for legal reasons, but because they wanted to establish it as a defined product and that Australian Pork Limited, the industry body, was eager to see it marketed as such. He said that the meat had two additives, Potassium lactate (326, acidity regulator, humectant, bulking agent) and Sodium acetates ( 262, acidity regulator). (Those descriptions are from the Food Standards Australia New Zealand list of food additives and their properties.) I found him very helpful and happy to answer questions and volunteer information. Full points there.

He said that he’d been selling this pork for 12 months, and his pork sales had quadrupled in that time. He sells mainly cutlets and loin steaks, ie lean cuts that need fairly quick cooking.

Tony said that the meat is marketed as “Murray Valley Pork”, which a quick google shows is “the premium retail fresh brand of QAF Meat Industries, which is Australia’s leading producer of pork for the domestic and export markets.”

They’re certainly pushing the premium angle, appearing at the Sydney Good Food Affare (shame about that name) where they’re described like this:

Murray Valley Pork, Corowa, NSW
Succulent and absolutely delicious Murray Valley Pork from the Riverina and Murray Valley region is a premium range developed in 2005 exclusively for quality retail butchers. Moisture infusing ensures that Murray Valley Pork is always juicy and tender and its neutral flavoured brine has been specially developed to provide customers with a consistently high quality eating experience.

No mention of QAF Meat Industries and their rather unpremium business name there. But checking
QAF’s site will tell you they “now supply 20 per cent of pork to the domestic market and account for 30 to 40 per cent of all farmed pork exports from Australia. We employ more than 850 people at 10 sites across Australia, with our largest site and head office for the group located at Corowa in the Murray River basin.”

I only eat premium pork, because what I found out about industrial pig farming was so horrible I couldn’t face supermarket meat anymore. (A hat tip to Noodlebowl for sending me off on that journey – thank you.)

It must be very difficult for the real premium producers, like the wonderful Mountain Creek Farm that we buy our meat from, when industrial giants prey on the ignorance of consumers who don’t know how to cook a particular cut of meat, and are afraid of a bit of fat. You don’t have to eat the fat, you know, but it really helps your cooking. And a little bit is good for you.

I found Mountain Creek Farm by emailing the Free Range Pork Farmers’ Association and asking. If you want a moist pork, I suggest you do the same.

(PS – Michael Croft of Mountain Creek Farm keeps a terrific blog (unfortunately no RSS) where he describes the farming life, the principles behind the farm, his recent trip to the Terra Madre artisanal producers’ conference in Turin and how a man who was a vegetarian for seven years became a beef and pork producer. I have since met an ex-vegan couple who are now his enthusiastic customers – that’s how good the meat is. The farm will be featured in the 10 December issue of The Canberra Times’ Food & Wine section. Sales details are on the website. And I have no connection with them, beyond being a really happy customer.)

Know your product

Melbourne Gastronome seems to be outrageously fortunate in the extended family department. My own good luck runs to having a sister-in-law who has a family farm in Bombala. It’s very pretty, but it can get quite rugged –

Here’s the timber of the old shearing shed inside:

and out:


As you can see, we don’t use the freezer for much. Usually just stock, a giant bag of my favourite dried chillies from the Asian Grocery, cold packs and a beast. This is a fat lamb from my sister-in-law’s farm, a whole one, 25 kilos.

We’ve had braised shanks and ridiculously tender and juicy cutlets, and there’s a lot of baggies left in there. I reached in and grabbed one this morning, and when I work out what it is it’ll be dinner for tomorrow.

This little bourgie goes to market …

The Minister for Competition Policy and Consumer Affairs, Chris Bowen, announced today that he’d formally received the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC’s) report on grocery prices. It’ll be public next week, but it’s already apparent that it will recommend unit pricing. At least that will save those poor blokes you see in the “baby aisle” doing mobile phone calculations to work out which size package has the cheapest unit price on nappies – hint, fellas: it’s always the smallest packet.

I don’t hold out much hope for the ACCC review. There will be Strong Measures to Increase Competition amongst supermarkets, of course. Zoning laws to stop capitalist bullies. And even a “GroceryWatch”. I shit you not. Why bother when “Coles and Woolworths together control 78 per cent of Australia’s packaged grocery sales worth $59 billion a year.”

The issue of food security and how we should eat is getting a lot of coverage on Radio National, in part connected to the delivery and release of the report. Life Matters today featured a great discussion about how pricing and availability affects people on lower incomes (you can hear the segment here for the next week, after that this site will give you the idea) and Encounter looks to be covering it from a more global perspective. (Sunday am/Weds night or podcast).

So with all this earnest concern I’ve been pondering t h e – g o b b l e r ‘ s question of whether a “War on Foodies!” is coming:

‘Aren’t they just pushing a very sophisticated & elite point of view?’ was the point I gleaned from tonight’s Counter-point on ABC’s radio national.

This implication combined with the very real emerging divide between the realities of nourishing your family within your economic actuality & the constant barrage of cooking celebs insisting that unless you are buying free-trade, seasonally, locally, SOLE [sustainable, organic, local and ethical] etc somehow you are not doing the right thing & you have a compelling recipe for disenfranchisement. This is what is pounced upon by those who are keen to get traction with this cultural-divide argument.

I agree that celebrity chefs can be annoying, but anyone that driven in their life is usually a bit painful. And while equitable access to food concerns me, truth be told I’m not that worried about ending up in a food culture war, for I shall beat their puny warriors over the head with slabs of my frozen homemade veal stock and their inadequately nourished bodies will crumble before my righteous wrath. Ha!

Cooking at home is a joy for me, but it isn’t for many people. Apparently some of them get pissed off finding out what they’re missing out on. More fool them.

If you’re attempting to make a convert, you could do worse than Mochachocolata-Rita’s list of reasons in favour of home cooking, which boils down to it’s fun, cheap and gets you the sexies. (Usage note: that final term being the one currently employed by my kindergartener son and his best mate; the correct construction is that you “do the sexies” on someone.)

While I’ve always been interested in food and cooking it wasn’t until my first stretch of stay-at-home mothering that I began making almost all the food we ate each day. It’s what made me a good cook, rather than a just a bourgie girl with a lot of cookbooks and a well stocked pantry.

Because we were living on one income, and not a huge one at that, I needed to wise up. I started shopping at the Fyshwick and Belconnen produce markets, and for a while when we were really skint I would buy a week’s worth of fruit and veg in the last hour of sales on Sunday before the Fyshwick markets closed until the following Thursday. We never ate badly, but I’m glad that I don’t have to fight my way through all the diplomatic plated cars for a park at Fyshwick on Sundays anymore.

Grey industrial sceneFor a long while, I became a serious fan of the Canberra Farmer’s Market. I don’t remember hearing about it starting up, but it wasn’t long after it was begun in early 2004 by the Rotary Club in nearby Hall.

My joy came partly because I could buy Infinity sourdough there. One of the biggest (and saddest) adjustments following moving to Canberra in 2002 was the lack of proper bread, particularly since I’d been living in Enmore in inner Sydney and was accustomed to being able to buy La Tartine bread at the Alfalfa House Co-op at end of my street. *sigh* But then I found Silo, which makes better bread than Infinity.

Still, many of the good things at the Market are very, very good. Like the warm spiced apple cider you can see my shadow clutching over there ⇐

Despite being generally very happy with the produce, I stopped being a fan of the whole “Farmers’ Market” experience. It was a combination of little things. There was an element of the Free Range Children Market For Inner City Pretentious Wankers, to borrow a term from Purple Goddess – I’m looking at you, posh lady with the $9 jars of “breakfast prunes” – but it wasn’t just that.

Celery The punters began coming earlier and earlier, and some stall holders were so busy serving customers two hours before the markets were advertised as beginning that they didn’t have time to set out their produce properly. Part of the whole relaxed and friendly vibe of the markets was lost in the crowds of pushy people. And until they put up signs forbidding it, people took dogs into the food selling areas. Alright, you’re in a building that says “Sheep Pavilion”, but you wouldn’t dream of taking your stupid fluffy white dog to the supermarket, would you?

I became annoyed that some stalls were obviously reselling purchased items – the variety and seasonality of the produce ostensibly from one origin gave it away. And some smaller stallholders whose produce was really out of this world – like Tallabung heritage breeds pork, the best pork that I have ever eaten – sold their business and while the brand is sold there, it’s lost the artisanal flavour that made it so astonishing. And it’s a lot more expensive. So I was pleased to see the markets separated into a “direct producer” and “not” sheds last year, as it meant I had to do less wandering to find the stalls I was after.

Rose Muffins from Amore CakesBut even despite the consistently excellent quality of the best stallholders – my favourites are the fresh South Coast seafood, the Amore cakes, Li Shen exotic mushrooms, Yulin Shanghai tofu and street snacks and Glean Na Meala spuds and greens – I found myself going to the Farmers’ Markets less and less. Since Glenn Na Meala opened Choku Bai Jo, I’ve been to the markets on one exploratory trip, for this post.

I might have gone more often if their website wasn’t so difficult to use – it’s a great example of how to stuff up using the web.

The site is set up as an internal administrative tool rather than a communication tool; I want to know what people are going to be selling this week, not where to download a form to sell my produce. Fair enough that there be a admin area for stallholders, but how about a simple site that is useful for customers too? Even an email newsletter that says what’s on this week? What to make with it? Their PR people seem fixated on mainstream press coverage rather than making their clients’ goods accessible to lots of different types of consumers. In summer, there are fantastic peaches and nectaries straight from the growers in Araluen – but how do you know when they are arriving? (When peaches are in season, I know, but you get my drift.)

In discussions at playgroups and waiting to pick up kids from school I hear other food loving parents complain that going to the markets has become another chore, rather than a pleasurable way to buy your food. I’ve also heard complaints that it’s not always cheaper than the supermarket. To my mind it needn’t be, because the quality and freshness are so much better, but to many people Farmers’ Market = super cheap. Something else for the PR peeps.

The site’s photo galleries are terrible – it’s a popup and the images still bear their camera sequence names. But it’s surprising to see the difference between April 2004 and now; maybe twenty stall holders and a couple of dozen milling food lovers then and two big sheds plus two separate outdoor areas and hundreds of regular customers now. The rest of the set from my trip to the markets is up at my flickr.

I will still go to the markets occasionally, and probably more in spring and summer. But for now, it’s just not worth the bother, when $45 at Choko Bai Jo buys you this (including the bowl of local hazelnuts), most of it organically produced but not certified organic, and sorry about the photo:

The Capital Region Farmers’ Market is held Saturdays at Exhibition Park (EPIC), from 8-11 am