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Growing generations of great gardeners

How do you get young people interested in the food they eat? By showing them how it all works – from plant to plate.

For the last ten years the team at Plant to Plate Aotearoa have been focused on educating school children in Manawatu about the benefits of growing – and eating – their own vegetables. Each week the team turn up at a school with their two vans – one packed with gardening stuff, and the other full of kitchen equipment – and start setting up.

They teach one class at a time at the school, splitting approximately 30 students into two groups – one group starts on the gardening, and the other group gets into cooking, and then they swap. Coordinator Jacinda Duker says they’re teaching essential life skills, and the kids really enjoy it.

“We meet with staff beforehand to find out if there are food allergies or religious requirements for menu planning. Then, on the day, we turn up at 8:30 and start unpacking the cooking van – usually into the school hall. It’s got everything we need – mini ovens, fry pans, tables – to cook the food. Our volunteers set up three tables with three different recipes for the kids to cook.”

Meanwhile, Jacinda usually arrives in the “garden shed on wheels” van, and gets ready in the garden. “Most schools now have veggie gardens in place, and we turn up with fertiliser, gloves, shoes, rain jackets, trowels and spades, and all the plants and seeds for the garden. I like to stand back once I’ve explained what we’re doing for the day, and let them do it, so they all get their hands in the soil,” she says.

When it’s time to eat, they set up a big table in the school hall with tablecloths and cutlery, and the team talks about table etiquette, positive manners, and positive talk around food. They have a karakia, and then everyone gets to eat. Afterwards, the students all do the dishes, so they’re involved in the whole process from start to finish. “Some have never been allowed to do this before.”

“It’s so much fun – the kids love it, and our volunteers love it too. Most of our volunteers are retired, or students trying to find work, and we also get a lot of immigrants helping out who are trying to learn our language, and how we do things. It’s a nice way to come into our community.

Eastern and Central Community Trust granted $5,000 towards programme costs, and Jacinda says it helps keep things rolling along. “That money goes towards replacing items, providing materials and goes towards the petrol costs of our volunteers and for the van.”

Participating schools pay $80 per session, which covers any additional food that needs to be bought for the session. “We always feed the students, volunteers, the class teacher and principal, and the caretaker – because they’re often so helpful maintaining the garden,” she says.

Jacinda also makes a point of highlighting the importance of volunteering to the students she works with. “People are so willing to share their knowledge with others through volunteering. I always talk to the students about what a volunteer is, and what they’re giving up to be there to help out.”