Stephanie Alexander at the Rouse Hill Town Centre with children from Hebersham Public School. AAP Image/CRAIG GEORGE
Since her pilot scheme at Melbourne's Collingwood College in 2001, the chef, restauranteur and food writer has established the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation (SAKGF), which has now been implemented in 193 primary schools across Australia.
That's about 24,000 children who are learning to grow, harvest, prepare and eat delicious, fresh seasonal food.
"I am proud of it (the foundation)," Alexander tells AAP.
"It is amazing when you go to schools whether it be in Coober Pedy or Western Australia, Forbes ... whenever I go, many people come up to me, and it's often parents, and they say it's amazing what this (program) has done to their son or daughter.
"I know that it (the program) creates behaviour change in a way that the children enjoy," she says.
In an industry that is bursting at the seams with TV cooking programs and cookbooks being published every week, Alexander is happy to dedicate her time to the future generations of Australia.
She believes the ever-growing issue of obesity starts at childhood and the best way to tackle it is by means of early intervention.
"It's about introducing children to new flavours and new textures. To understand the possibilities of fresh food and to feel relaxed and competent at cooking themselves with ingredients they can grow.
"And it happens very quickly, that confidence," she says.
Alexander's kitchen garden program is designed for years 3 to 7, with children spending 45 minutes each week in the garden learning, growing and maintaining the produce. A further 90 minutes is spent in the kitchen classroom cooking and eating meals created from their produce.
But with more than 6300 primary schools in the country, Alexander has a long way to go. The fourth and last round of funding, being announced soon by the federal government, will take the number of schools participating in the program up to 270 - involving more than 33,000 children.
"It seems to me that it's as obvious as Blind Freddy that it is what ought to happen and it disturbs me that it seems to be something that government resists," she says.
"I know it's expensive. But we're told that public health cost is rising with issues like obesity, heart disease and diabetes-2 and the cost to the community is going to be astronomical.
"I would like to feel that I could convince somebody to commit what is effectively one per cent of the health budget, which would support the salaries of a kitchen and garden specialist in every school in Australia, is not really too much to ask.
"But it's very hard for any politician of any colour or shape to have a long view."
One company that is supporting Alexander's mission is GPT Group, a property company with a vast retail portfolio.
Working with SAKGF for the past year, GPT prides itself on what is says are more sustainable centres, rather than the sterile atmosphere and artificial lighting of many of Australia's shopping complexes.
To coincide with the inaugural Kitchen Garden Week, the group's Rouse Hill Town Centre development in Sydney's north-west has opened a community kitchen garden - the seventh GPT garden located in an urban environment.
"Feedback from our customers and communities on the kitchen gardens in our centres has been overwhelmingly positive," says GPT's Vanessa Orth.
"Retailers and uni students love the Melbourne Central garden and pick herbs for their salads at lunch.
"We want to make our centres more than just shopping."
Alexander agrees. "Shopping ought to be more than just filling your trolley. People spend a lot of time in these centres so it's great that there's this recreational facility which is also very educational as well."
"(The Rouse Hill community garden) is a beautiful garden and an inspirational space and I can imagine how well received this is by the broader community that use this centre - it's a great initiative and the more it spreads the better."
How Gardening Helps Children
Victoria's Deakin University and The University of Melbourne evaluated the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Program and found that it encourages a positive healthy behaviour change in participating children.
Some of the points found in the study include:
- Strong evidence of increased child willingness to try new food.
- Children enjoyed the garden and kitchen class `a lot'.
- Significant increases in child knowledge, confidence and skills in cooking and gardening.
- The program was considered particularly effective at engaging `non-academic learners' and children with challenging behaviours.
- The program helped to create links between schools and the community.