For everyone An edible education

It’s only on rare occasions that I envy the life of a student. I mean, who’d want to go back to those angsty years, when all your energy was spent on trying to fit in and be like everyone else while at the same time carving out your personal brand of ‘cool’? 

Even primary school was agony, when you’re still trying to work out the basics of good and bad, real and fictional, acceptable and cringey, and then go and score an own goal by revealing your passion for macrame unicorns during Show and Tell or accidentally call your teacher ‘Mum’.

Yes, I’m very happy to be teacher rather than student. It’s reassuring to be the one in the room who knows who and what they are, and doesn’t have to battle through the injustices and embarrassments of puberty. 

Saying that, occasionally there are times when I feel a pang of envy. Sometimes, when I’m driving or cycling past a school in my neighbourhood, I peer across the school fence and wish I could be inside, learning what they are learning. I’m talking about you, schools with gardens! 

Nowadays, there are schools boasting aquaponic farms. Frog ponds. Chook pens. Schools with ostentatious orchards or humble worm farms. Schools with compost bays and recycling stations. Schools with hand-painted, joyous signs announcing, ‘Edible Garden!’ Schools where students are as busy as bees, digging and planting and watering and other things I was never taught at school but really wish I was. 

I write this from my own backyard, metres from a dying lemon tree. (Readers, it may already be dead. I don’t know when to make that call.) I see herbs in various stages of decay, and wilted tomato plants whose leaves are speckled with something I cannot diagnose. Sure, the passionfruit vines are thriving, but with no hint of a single passionfruit. And if you dared lift the lid, you’d see the worm farm contains more ants than grubs.

Thanks to school gardens, increasing numbers of students now know where eggs come from – and how to boil them!

No hand-painted sign is required to declare mine an Inedible Garden. I’m failing at this fundamental human skill of survival. But it’s not my fault! Like many of you, I grew up in a time when food was something that magically appeared in my lunchbox each day. I didn’t know where it came from (the supermarket, via my mum) or where the unwanted bits went (the bin, via my mum), only that it involved margarine-slathered white bread slices filled with processed chicken roll or vegemite.

The only plants growing near my small primary school in Far North Queensland were the sugar-cane fields surrounding us on three sides. Daring boys would climb fences at lunchtimes, snap off fresh cane stalks, then hand them around, like drug dealers dishing out an illicit sugar rush.

I didn’t learn much about food in high school, either, despite the compulsory semester of food tech. These lessons were focused more on the survival manual – extinguishing fires; tending to burns – than nutrition or culinary skills. Our first practical lesson was making blancmange from a packet mix and, once we’d mastered that unscathed, access to the bible, a.k.a. the Day to Day Cookery Book.

I’m not alone in my failings. According to a 2018 survey of Australian parents by Pureprofile, half of their teenagers couldn’t boil an egg, make pasta, or follow a recipe. Apparently, 20% of teens’ cooking skills are limited purely to pouring milk over cereal.

School gardens are changing this, with a holistic approach to food. Increasing numbers of students know where eggs come from – and how to boil them! With programs such as the Kitchen Garden Foundation, Farm My School, the Edible Schoolyard Program, the Victorian Schools Garden Program, and more, there are plenty of resources for developing a school culture that understands and values cooking, sustainability, biodiversity, ethical choices, and gardening basics. As someone who doesn’t know a shovel from a trowel, I’d love to be a fruit-fly on the wall of those classes. Some schools even get celebrity-bombed by VIPs like Costa Georgiardis and Stephanie Alexander. It’s almost enough to make me wish I was a kid all over again!

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