The contributions of Stephanie Alexander to food education in Australia span generations. For example: do you have a school-age child? If he or she is lucky enough, their school is a Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation school, where kids can – literally – dig in, learn where their food comes from by growing their own, and taste the results.

Next, think of your own favourite cookbook. The one that bears the stains of heavy use, flour caught within its pages; the one that occupies a place of pride on your benchtop. Chances are, it’s Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion.

Stephanie earned her reputation over three decades as an owner-chef, as the author of 14 influential books and hundreds of articles about food, and for her groundbreaking work in her Kitchen Garden Foundation.

We are now honoured to have Stephanie as our first speaker at this year’s Dietitian Day 2016 on 11 March. Her Dietitian Day presentation will focus on her work with Australia’s children via her Kitchen Garden Foundation. At a time when childhood obesity continues to rise, Stephanie’s message is solution-oriented and actionable: to help children form positive food habits for life.

We had the chance to speak with Stephanie in advance of Dietitian Day 2016 to gain a taste of what she’ll be sharing with attendees on the day. Here’s our sneak preview, to whet your appetite for her appearance in Sydney.

DC: What is your philosophy behind your Kitchen Garden Foundation?

Stephanie: I believe that the way to positively influence the food choices of young people is to give them a positive modelling experience. That’s how I was raised – with gardening and food-loving parents who cared about what went on our table – and my experience turned me into a foodie. But for a lot of young kids, that isn’t the experience.

We are bombarded with opinions and statistics about what to do about obesity and overweight issues. Whatever goes into people’s mouths needs to be very important – and a lot of children are not exposed to a broad palate. We need to give children skills, so they can do for themselves – both now, and later in their lives.

DC: Recently the World Health Organisation acknowledged the effectiveness of school-based food education in addressing the childhood obesity crisis, and called for the inclusion of ‘nutrition and health education within the core curriculum in schools’. How has this impacted your work with the Foundation?

Stephanie: It makes us go yes, yes, yes! But in a more political sense, it gives us important ammunition in our efforts to persuade Government to include food education in the general curriculum.

Whenever I speak to politicians, they always say, “What a wonderful program you’re running – every time I go to a school with one of your programs I can see the energy and the enthusiasm.” But the fact that there is an official acknowledgement [from the WHO] will help our lobbying. It will encourage local authorities to think about food education when they are planning their communities and open spaces.

It’s becoming more obvious that, while what we do is very important, we also need to influence families and communities with targeted programs.

DC: How can dietitians get involved in your Foundation?

Stephanie: Any dietitian working in a community can find out what schools in their region have a Kitchen Garden and can go visit – they’ll always be welcome as a visitor! They may even want to volunteer, if they have time.

Also, if they meet a parent [as a client], they can say, “Did you know this program is operating in that school? You can go have a look.”

Many of the dietitians I’ve met work for local government or health authorities, and they’re in a fantastic position of influence. There are lots of ways for schools, dietitians and local councils to get together and make more of an impact on community events. For example, instead of lamington drives and chocolate fundraisers – why not have plant stalls, with seedlings? The kids love that – it doesn’t have to be about lollies.

I’d love to feel that dietitians have sympathy for my approach of lessening talk about nutrients when talking to clients, and more emphasis on flavour, texture, balance and moderation. We want to excite the community about good food.

DC: Since your in-school program began in 2001, a generation of school children’s lives have been transformed, and ‘pleasurable food education’ is currently delivered in more than 800 Schools across Australia. What’s next for the Foundation?

Stephanie: We have an issue with the size of Australia, the size of the problem and the extent of our resources. We have no further government funding – it all ended last year. We are now yet another not-for-profit foundation seeking funding from corporations.

But we’ve taken a positive approach: we are moving most of our activities online, and will offer training online. We’re into webinars, and schools are posting visual information about what they’re doing, so other schools can have a look and see.

We need to generate the same interest [regardless of resources]. There are still 7,000 primary schools in Australia and, while 800 schools [that have Kitchen Gardens] is a respectable 10 percent, it’s still only 10 percent.

DC: What is the biggest challenge the children in your school programs face in translating what they learn in school kitchen gardens to their home nutritional habits? How are you helping them to overcome this?

Stephanie: That’s a hard one, given the entrenched attitudes of parents.

I am very aware that, in most families, it is the parents who decide what is going to be for dinner. We have to rely on the children being the drivers, their subtle influence.

We find that kids take their recipes from school home, and often we send them home as emails. We encourage activities that turn cooking into a family activity – for example, kids are asked to have a go at making a recipe again over the weekend, and asking their parents to write what they think of it. Also, it’s anecdotal, but we hear parents say that their child is more interested in going to the supermarket with them now, for example.

We have a great relationship with Medibank Community Fund that will help us interact more directly with families.

DC: How do you teach school children to strike a balance between eating for pleasure and eating for health?

Stephanie: To me, they are not in opposite camps. I think it’s negative and counter-productive to present to children the option of eating for pleasure or eating for health.

We teach positive messages: have a great breakfast, enjoy cut-up fruit, drink water. We have to try and not demonise any foods, except possibly sugary drinks. [We teach that] foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt are not ‘everyday’ foods. We can encourage kids to be extremely critical of emotive language, and the messages given to them by advertisers.

Every meal I eat is both enjoyable and good for me, and that’s because I choose proper food, real food, not convenience food. I eat with the seasons; I choose to be as close as I can to where I get my food; I buy from farmers’ markets, and where I can talk to the purveyor.

Learn more about Stephanie Alexander and about her Kitchen Garden Foundation.

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