Stephanie Alexander - On a Mission

Armed with a passion for giving kids a proper taste of real food, Stephanie Alexander has revolutionised food education in Australia. 

Transforming Australia’s food education system might not have been on Stephanie Alexander’s agenda in the early days, but as her memoirs and the countless young chefs she has mentored will attest, her knack for teaching was always on the table.

When it comes to accomplishments, it’s safe to say that Ms Alexander has more than a few strings to her bow. Beyond being a living legend of the Australian food world, she can also lay claim to being a university graduate, trained librarian, teacher, culinary pioneer, avid traveller, award-winning restauranteur, cook, mother, food writer, AO and AOM recipient, and best-selling author.

Now in her 70s, Alexander devotes much of her time to writing and heading up the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, which she established in 2004, and is as fervent as ever about providing children with the opportunity to understand and experience real food from a young age. 

Having grown up with two parents, three siblings and one grandpa on a big piece of land on the Mornington Peninsula (along with ducks, a cow, herb gardens, an orchard and a vegie patch) Stephanie’s was an idyllic upbringing. Her mother, Mary was a passionate cook, gardener and reader. Her maternal grandfather – also an avid gardener – lived with the family, while her father, Winston, a former public servant was passionate about politics, fine wine and social justice. Between them, her elders provided a young Stephanie with the kind of cultural and culinary education that was far from the norm in 1950s Australia. 

“In many ways, mine was very different to the home life of most other kids that I knew at the local school” she recalls. “My friends didn’t eat the sorts of things that we ate. They didn’t have meals where you might have a little entrée first followed something else; where everybody sat (the three generations) together and wine was poured” she says. “I was aware that our house was different in that way. It was just a lovely environment.”

 

She says that the older she got, the more she realised just how fortunate she had been to be brought up with such values – good food, global sensibilities, hearty conversation, self-sufficiency, inter-generational connectedness. 

“It has really stayed with me, that awareness of having had such an amazing beginning in life” she explains. “I didn’t ever say to my mother how grateful I was and how extraordinarily relevant those early ears were in my life. But it’s why I have such a strong belief in the power of introducing children to really good food, as young as possible.”

Since establishing the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation more than a decade ago, her mantra of “grow, cook, eat” has influenced thousands of young minds – and palates – all over Australia. From Katherine to Broome, Bondi and Bairnsdale, programs now run in over 1300 schools nationally.

The Foundation’s vision is to deliver “pleasurable food education” in schools all around Australia, so that children can form “positive food habits for life.” Every fortnight for two years, kids are taught how to grow fresh, seasonal produce and are then shown how to use it to prepare nutritious, delicious food. According to Alexander, the program aims to provide kids with all the skills, experiences and role modelling required to love food and “to make healthier choices about what to cook and eat, for life.”

“When I started the foundation, I wasn’t keen to just say “Grow a garden, kids” because a garden is just one aspect of it” she explains. “If you’re not given any help with how to use what’s grown in your garden, then it’s of limited value.” 

“It all becomes so much more meaningful when a kid is shown how to pick produce and take it to the kitchen, chop it up and throw it in the pan with a bit of garlic and some olive oil” she says. “They look at it and say “Wow. I made that!” Then they’ve got something.” 

She says this has been one of the greatest rewards for her years of work on the Foundation. “For me, seeing kids get excited by [what they learn in the program] is just wonderful” She says she often gets feedback from parents about how participation in the program creates positive change in kids, which always warms her heart.

“It trickles down into families and influences the way kids interact with food at home” Alexander explains. “After learning a few things at school, kids then want to help in the kitchen at home. They talk about what they made at school and ask “Can we make it again?” It’s not just about growing vegies. I’m more interested in the full circle.”

So what advice does she have for grown-ups with not-so-green thumbs? Are we all doomed? “If you can do it, then do it. But an edible garden isn’t for everyone. It’s just not realistic” Alexander says. “Real food doesn’t have to mean changing your whole life. All the great initiatives that we see around us – communal gardens, farmer’s markets, fresh food markets, places where you can go and actually touch the food, and have a conversation with someone about where it came from – that’s real food. That’s a wonderful place to start.”

Book now for Stephanie Alexander in conversation at Harveast, part of Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.