Some might take for granted the ability to grow and prepare their own meals, but when retired school principal Ros Powell plants a seed, she’s passing knowledge to generations of people who are learning, for the first time, how to garden and cook.
Most weeks of the school year, Ros Powell and fellow volunteers take vans with gardening equipment and a mobile kitchen into schools, inspiring young people to be more involved with what they eat.
Established four years ago as a charitable trust, Plant to Plate Aotearoa is a community programme, free to all primary schools across Palmerston North and the Manawatū district. The programme is led by teachers and assisted by experienced, enthusiastic volunteers who enjoy passing on their skills to children and their teachers.
The programme was started by several retirees who saw a need in their local schools. “We began with nothing, purchasing items from our own pockets and catering for several events to cover costs,” Ros says. “People donated goods to us and further assistance came from Awapuni Rotary Club, Palmerston North Inner Wheel, Pioneer New World, the Palmerston North Environmental Trust and the Palmerston North City Council.
“Our first morale boost came early when Awapuni Nurseries donated seedlings to Plant to Plate Aotearoa used in each school we visited. Other highlights were a substantial three year grant from The Tindall Foundation and the gift of a vehicle from Awapuni Rotary Club. In 2010 Plant to Plate Aotearoa won the Palmerston North Trustpower Community Award for Volunteerism, which really validated the work we do.”
“Our mantra is seasonality, thrift and independence.”
Plant to Plate volunteers are invited into schools to give a minimum of three gardening and cooking sessions to a class of children. The children build the gardens themselves using
simple wooden boxing; they learn how to plant seeds and seedlings, make compost and care for their school gardens.
“Our mantra is seasonality, thrift and independence,” Ros says. “For the cooking side, we use staple ingredients from the home store cupboard and produce that is in season, to
create simple, delicious meals together, while having fun.”
Menu items include soups, breads, salads, muffins, miniquiches and potatoes in several forms. The class is divided into two groups during the three-hour session, with one half gardening and the other cooking, before swapping over so that each child participates in both activities.
Ros says that even teachers have been surprised at the response from children, who are so enthusiastic about food growing and cooking – possibly influenced by the proliferation of cooking shows. “The surge in TV cooking shows has certainly been good for us. The kids are excited to get involved and don their aprons – boys equally as much as girls.”
Each session concludes with a sit-down meal. Tables, aprons, tablecloths, cutlery, glassware and dishes are all provided, and the children are taught to lay place settings for the meal – a skill that Ros says is surprisingly rare these days.
“A large number of families no longer eat at the dining table, so this is something new and exciting for some of our kids. They call it their ‘restaurant’. Plant to Plate sees eating together as a social skill, so we place importance on good manners and friendly conversation at the table.”
To date, Plant to Plate Aotearoa has worked with more than 3500 children from 36 primary schools across the region – sometimes visiting more than one school in the same week.
“We’re thrilled when we’re invited back to a school to see that the programme’s teaching has become ingrained,” Ros says. “Connecting with the Earth keeps children healthy and encourages economic and physical independence.
“What we do isn’t unique, but our mobility and the way that we operate across the schools in Palmerston North and district are,” she says. “Our vision is to teach as many children as we can life skills around the growing and cooking of food, and help them to learn ways to care for the environment and Earth’s resources. It gives us back something as well – a real sense of contribution and achievement.”
“The kids are excited to get involved.”
Ros says the volunteers range in age from retired people to part-time workers, volunteers from the Multicultural Centre and international students from Massey University.
“It’s so rewarding for us to have such a worthwhile project in which to invest our time and energy. The international volunteers from China, Korea, the United States, South Africa, Russia and Britain have been wonderful and really enjoy the opportunity to integrate with our community – and we learn something from them as well.”
While the programme is a rewarding one, she says that at times it can be confronting. “We do see children for whom food security is an issue, particularly at a time of recession as we have now. There are genuinely hungry children out there, and it’s important that we as a community appreciate the circumstances our children are faced with every day, in order to make a difference.”
Making that difference, she says, is part of a unique privilege that is creating a lasting legacy. “Parents sometimes stop us in the street to tell us they’ve started their own gardens at home, or are using our recipes for their meals.
“We’ve been so grateful to have wide support for something we are so passionate about, in the form of volunteers, grants, donations and sponsorship. This is work that is is good for the soul.”