Encouraging active food citizens

First published in Canberra's Child, August 2013

At what age should kids be in the kitchen using sharp knives and a perilously hot stove? At what age should children take part in decisions about what’s for dinner and how it’s made?

My hunch is too often children are limited by pre-conceived ideas about what's safe and what's appropriate.

In our crazy-busy and harried parenting lives, I am grateful for the invitation to have my children take part in a kitchen garden program (complete with composts and chooks) at their primary school in Canberra, with its spill-on effects.

Having the kids become ‘active food citizens’ is not without its risks or downsides. Meals take longer to prepare, basic tasks become full of human drama and the kitchen gets messier (I'll admit that haven’t let go entirely). But I have found that engaged children are more likely to appreciate their food.

My nine-year old son has always been interested in cooking and began making porridge for the family as a preschooler. But when he came home with recipes “with a twist” (like beetroot and chocolate cupcakes), he became even keener to experiment at home.

I interviewed a batch of Year 6 students about their experiences of their school-based program.

They said the program relaxes them, exposes them to different and often healthier foods, makes them aware of seasons and produce, and helps develop their gardening and cooking skills with surprisingly sophisticated results. It helps develop teamwork and leadership skills, provides them with opportunities to care for animals and reflect on nature and provides another reason to go to school:'

“It's not like sitting down in a classroom and just learning. You are still learning but you get to move around outdoors and it's more hands on.”
Many were proud of what they had done to improve the school environment.

The parents surveyed said there was little change in the overall diet at home but children said they felt better about eating fresh uncooked food:

“One time, we harvested corn and then did different things, boiled it, roasted it and ate it raw. Now instead of having my corn boiled, I always eat it raw, it's heaps juicier and tastier.”

Kids learned tough lessons caring for the chickens:

“When I first came, we had a bunch of different looking chickens. Then they got attacked by foxes... That was sad... I guess I love animals. I guess it was a big thing... We improved the chook shed with extra reinforced mesh whereas as before we had some flimsy chook wire netting around them.”

Some expressed joy that they could be trusted with sharp objects:

“My favourite thing in the kitchen is either chopping up onions or using the Mezzaluna... A little wooden board with a double blade knife with two handles on the end.”

Others said they felt less isolated, and more able to focus.

The program also challenges gender stereotypes. Girls also use power tools and make the concrete! And it has stimulated discussions about the connection between our two worlds - the inside and the outside. It has become a kind of modern and subtle intervention in behavioural, environmental and social change.

A kitchen and garden program (and there are several models schools can adopt and adapt) opens up all sorts of wonderful possibilities for learning and empowerment with kids as participants. It invites thinking about food self-sufficiency and sustainability and the choices we can all make.

But ultimately, the confidence and transfer of cooking and gardening skills at home is influenced by the extent to which children are thought of as capable and are allowed, expected and supported by their carers.

One student, with aspirations of being a junior master chef, was able to keenly apply a school lesson at home and gained invaluable confidence along the way:

“At home, I always try and make meringues and I could never get it right. Then recently we made them in kitchen and they turned out good. Now, I can do them. You can under peak or over peak your batter. Often, at home I over peaked my batter and it went flat and chewy. They say the test is, you pick up the bowl and if it falls on your head, it's not good.”

For more go to: http://www.majuraps.act.edu.au/our_garden

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