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Harry McClelland brandishes a red potato. Photo: ALICE PARMINTER

Growing food grows minds at Turua School

It’s a sunny day and the year fives and sixes of Turua School are outside, wrist-deep in dirt.

Excited voices ring out – “I found another one!” – and handfuls of potatoes shoot into the air as the children bring in the harvest.

It’s all part of the Garden to Table programme, designed to get kids out of the classroom and learning practical life skills. Garden to Table, a charitable trust, has similar initiatives in schools across the country.

At Turua School, the programme is run by co-ordinators Anikha Sanders and Estelle McCoid, along with parent volunteers. They also organise the school’s annual pumpkin festival.

Anikha began as a volunteer, offering to rejuvenate the school’s vegetable garden when her middle child began school.

Now, she guides the tamariki through an hour and a half a week in the garden.

“These guys garden, compost, manage the worm farm, do lots of seed sowing. And then we come together at the end,” Anikha says.

“Sharing of the food, and sharing of the knowledge.”

The programme begins with the year threes. Children are assigned to garden, kitchen or theory work, rotating through the roster each week.

“By the time they’ve finished, they’ve done five years of cooking and gardening in a school setting,” Anikha says.

“A lot of the parents have said they are hoping their children will be more adventurous, especially with the food that they’re eating. And we’ve noticed that: a lot of the kids by the end of the year are trying much much more, and in fact liking much much more.”

It’s a relaxed, organic environment. Discussions break out in different corners – two boys compare their potato haul in one corner, while a parent aide helps students unearth vegetables in another.

Activity ceases for a moment as one of the girls surfaces with a giant leopard slug in hand and everyone gathers around to inspect.

Anikha sends someone off to find the bug book from the garden shed and with the creature relocated safely away from probing pitchforks, conversation turns to bugs and their role in the garden.

Garden to Table coordinator Anikha Sanders discusses pitchfork safety with a group of students. Photo: ALICE PARMINTER

The benefits of real, hands-on experience can’t be underestimated, Anikha says, pointing out the happy demeanour of the group behind her.

“[It’s] good for the mental health – how healthy is this for them to be out in the garden, hands in the soil? With the cyclone, how important is food security?”

There’s always something new to learn – and with the pumpkin festival fast approaching, a relevant topic has been resilience and setbacks.

“It’s been a very difficult pumpkin growing season,” Anikha says.

“We’ve had not much sun, we’ve had a lot of rain, a few people have lost their pumpkins from the cyclone or all the flooding on the plains.”

Although the pumpkins aren’t expected to be as large as last year’s 100kg+ whoppers, Anikha says the children can still have a fun day and celebrate their successes.

“We thought, we’ll still have our big day … bouncy castle, pony rides, face painting – we’ve had some awesome local businesses sponsor some of those activities.”

Cohen May with his haul of potatoes. Photo: ALICE PARMINTER

The pumpkin festival is a fun interlude, providing fundraising for Garden to Table’s ongoing costs, but even the everyday sessions are filled with variation by their very nature.

“We’re very emergent here based on what’s happening in the garden. What we’re doing week-to-week changes,” Anikha says.

“I try to get them to be slow and mindful and enjoy what they’re out here with.”

Anikha is passionate about the holistic nature of the programme – from seed to produce to kitchen – and the connection with nature as a whole.

“There are a lot of discussions … in terms of the wildlife, treating all of that with respect, understanding how it works within the ecosystem as well, and also trying to encourage that they are the kaitiaki or the guardians of our school environment and also their own home environment.”

In the kitchen, Estelle is similarly exuberant about the programme. She notices a dramatic change in attitudes each year.

“It’s just giving them the confidence to do it, and that it’s okay to do it,” she says.

Today she’s guiding a group through the basics of pizza dough. A quiche sits in the oven, stuffed full of zucchini and tomato.

Sam Marting and Aiya Watene measure out the yeast for a pizza dough. Photo: ALICE PARMINTER

There’s a lot that goes into working a kitchen, she says, and the skills she teaches build practical, life-long knowledge.

“Hygiene, safety, knife skills is a big one. And also different ways of cooking – what is frying, what is baking, what is poaching. Even things like boiling water and how to crack an egg. Different utensils and what they’re all for. It’s amazing how many kids don’t know what to do with a whisk.” she says.

As morning tea approaches, everyone meanders through the garden beds towards the seating area, munching on apples, cucumbers and salad greens.

The kitchen contingent marches out with plates and platters, and everyone takes a seat, sharing a chat and a karakia as a group.

The smell of piping hot quiche wafts through the air. It’s the perfect way to spend a school day.

The Giant Pumpkin Festival will be held at Turua School on April 1 at 11am. There will be food stalls, raffles, and prizes for the weigh-in and other categories. All funds raised go back into running the Garden to Table programme.

By ALICE PARMINTER, Public Journalism funded by NZ on Air.