In 2001, a community group calling themselves Cultivating Community partnered with celebrity chef and restaurateur Stephanie Alexander to found a kitchen garden program at Collingwood College in Melbourne’s inner north. Cultivating Community itself grew from a project funded by the Department of Human Services to encourage the development of kitchen gardens on public housing estates. The school garden program expanded and today is coordinated by Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Foundation.
The Foundation was set up in 2004 to build on the success of the Collingwood school garden. With the support of the Victorian State Government, the program had been introduced to another forty primary schools by 2010. In 2008 the Australian Government committed $12.8 million to fund the rollout and build garden and kitchen infrastructure in up to 190 government primary schools across Australia. It continued to expand. In an article written for SBS in 2018, Yasmin Noone quotes figures of 1065 primary schools, 70 special schools and 237 early learning centres Australia-wide. While the greatest number are in Victoria, there are participating schools in every state and territory.
The Foundation’s website explains that the growing epidemic of childhood obesity was one of the factors leading to the establishment of the program and says that:
The purpose of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation is to inroduce pleasurable food education to children during their learning years, in order to form positive food habits for life.
The program involves children in Years 3 to 5. The children spend at least forty-five minutes in the garden and an hour and a half in the kitchen each week and enjoy a communal meal based on the produce they have grown. In 2020, the Foundation reported that it was conducting new pilot programs, The Kitchen Garden Program for Early Childhood and The Kitchen Garden Program for Secondary Years.
Over the years, a number of research programs have been conducted in an attempt to measure the success of the school garden program. In 2011 the Australian Government funded a significant study by the University of Wollongong designed to measure the return on government investment and to assess whether participation in the school gardens program influenced children’s lifestyle behaviours, eating habits and food choices. The research also looked at the impact of the program on social cohesion and behaviour.
The study showed benefits in terms of kids’ preparedness to try new foods and to participate in cooking at home. It also reported improvement in children’s social behaviours and positive effects on social inclusion. However, it found that children who participated in the program did not end up eating significantly more fruit and vegetables. It seems that battle is yet to be won.