Can teaching kids to grow carrots and cook kale save the planet? Kim Knight reports from Garden to Table’s Root to Tip competition.

The chrysalis was stone-cold coal black. Nearby, the children had found a butterfly with a hole in its wing.

The sun was shining and the birds were singing but down in the garden it had all gone a bit existential.

"Sometimes when butterflies are born at the end of the season, when it's very cold, sometimes they have defects," said Caroline McCartney. "Also, they don't live very long. Maybe it is at the end of its life?"

The small girls frowned. Then they planted carrots.

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Garden to Table is a primary school programme that teaches kids to grow, harvest and cook food. It is death and life and later there might be lemon muffins.

Three-quarters of all of the food sold around the world is processed. In developed countries, processed food accounts for between 40 and 75 per cent of nutrition and energy intakes. New Zealand scores relatively highly for fresh fruit and vegetable consumption but latest figures show 63 per cent of us still fail to eat the recommended five or more serves a day.

Did you know you can eat kumara leaves? That if you cut a spring onion 2cm from its base and rehydrate the roots, you can plant it again? That if you blitz raw pumpkin peel with plain biscuits and butter, you can bake a pretty decent pie crust?

In the Maungawhau School garden in Mt Eden, the pineapple sage is flowering neon red and the wax-eyes are having a go at the citrus. A 9-year-old has just pulled up a full-grown carrot.

Darcy Bartholomew and James Hannan squeeze the lemons they grew as part of Maungawhau School's Garden to Table programme. Photo / NZ Herald
Darcy Bartholomew and James Hannan squeeze the lemons they grew as part of Maungawhau School's Garden to Table programme. Photo / NZ Herald

"What does it smell like?" asks McCartney, the school's garden specialist.

"Fresh," says one child.

"Like a carrot," says another.

Did you know that if you wash and dry and finely chop a carrot's feathery green tips you can combine them with coriander and make a dipping sauce for vegetable-stuffed dumplings?

The average New Zealand household wastes $1071 worth of food annually. About one-eighth of what we buy to eat is eventually thrown out. The worst offenders are Millennials, who bin 15 per cent of their weekly food shop, closely followed by Centennials on 14 per cent. Baby Boomers (the generation born between 1946 and 1964) waste just 8 per cent.

Research by online rural bank RaboDirect found lifestyle and age play a role in food budgeting.

"It's often presumed younger generations are more environmentally conscious," says chief executive Daryl Johnson. "But the survey found younger generations were more likely to eat out, were cooking meals from scratch less often and were less likely to eat leftovers."

The bank is sponsoring a major Garden to Table winter initiative — a nationwide Root to Tip cooking competition with 12 regional heats. The finals are in Wellington on August 3. Back in June, Canvas was at the Auckland semi-finals.

The lift to the fourth floor of AUT's School of Tourism and Hospitality was packed with potatoes and silverbeet, onions and cauliflower, beans and beetroot and ("I don't know how you say that?") je-ru-sa-lem artichokes.

Fifty teams of two had vied for the six benches occupied by students from Te Huruhi, Whangaparaoa, Meadowbank, Hobsonville, Green Bay and Maungawhau primary schools.

At 10am it smelled like apples and lemons. By 10.30, the kitchen was sweet with roasting pumpkins.

What does a persimmon taste like?

"Sort of ... plain," says Kate Slyfield.

luru Oike, aged 7, with a carrot grown by the students taking part in Maungawhau School's Garden to Table programme. Photo / NZ Herald
luru Oike, aged 7, with a carrot grown by the students taking part in Maungawhau School's Garden to Table programme. Photo / NZ Herald

Why are you using potatoes?

"Because they are quite filling, and they taste quite nice," says William Chamberlain.

Is that an avocado the size of a grapefruit?

"My grandparents own an orchard," says Juliet King. "And we'll be using the skin as a little bowl for the zesty aioli and the whipped avocado dressing and we'll be using the pip to keep it all fresh."

"Look over there," the children whisper to each other — "is that mint in a PLASTIC PACKET?"

Garden to Table has its roots across the Tasman. Founder Catherine Bell is a long-time friend of Melburnian Stephanie Alexander — the cook, restaurateur and all-round Australian food legend who established food education programme, the Kitchen Garden Foundation.

Rihito Yamada steers a wheelbarrow in Maungawhau School's garden. Photo / NZ Herald
Rihito Yamada steers a wheelbarrow in Maungawhau School's garden. Photo / NZ Herald

In 2008, Alexander spoke about the Foundation's work at a major New Zealand food conference. Bell asked the gastronomically inclined crowd for expressions of interest in a local scheme. Ultimately, a pilot programme would be launched in three schools — East Tamaki, Te Atatu Peninsula and Meadowbank.

The programme's cornerstones are grow, harvest, prepare and share, and the target audience are 7 to 10 years old. It now encompasses 150 schools, including 88 who take part in an online version. Another 200 schools are waiting to join up.

"Our resources are really limited," says Bell.

Food and nutrition journalist Niki Bezzant and chef Al Brown are programme ambassadors. Schools fund kitchen and garden specialists but rely on volunteers — including many retirees and grandparents — to help supervise the weekly cooking and gardening sessions.

Eden Tinholt from Maungawhau Primary with AUT tutor Robert Haddock at the Root to Tip competition. Photo / NZ Herald
Eden Tinholt from Maungawhau Primary with AUT tutor Robert Haddock at the Root to Tip competition. Photo / NZ Herald

"I still get goosebumps every time I go to a school," says Bell. "Too many people don't understand where food comes from. They have no connection between the land and what's on their plate. Supermarkets are where you get food!

"There's a lot of research around young people — youth who are older than the children we're dealing with, but this is where it begins — which says they have no empathy. They don't know how to nurture. Garden to Table teaches children how to nurture something. It gives them pride and a sense of achievement. They grow a seedling, they watch it, they look after it, and they're picking the results ... kids who know how to nurture are less likely to commit crime, they're less likely to suffer from low self esteem, they're less likely to suffer from depression or abuse substances if they share food around the table in a family environment where they feel nurtured or cared for."

If you're a certain age, you might remember learning to cook at school. Somewhere between overflowing the sink and flicking tea towels, you boiled an egg, mashed a potato and perfected the art of the scone in home economics class. Later you made an ashtray in metalwork, an apron in sewing and then you went to high school. Today, the New Zealand Curriculum simply states "it is expected that all students will have had opportunities to learn practical cooking skills by the end of Year 8".

That expectation is not a compulsion. Canvas spoke to one home economics teacher who said setting up and maintaining dedicated food rooms was expensive. In schools without kitchens, students might be sent to outside providers for instruction but otherwise they learned in standard classrooms or school halls, which limited the ability to fully gain practical skills. Many younger teachers lacked food and cooking knowledge and, while she said Garden to Table was "amazing", she had concerns about food hygiene issues and the fact that New Zealand's main growing season was during summer, when schools are closed.

Under the New Zealand curriculum, junior students learn about food and nutrition via the health and physical education components. Senior students can choose to study home economics, food technology or even hospitality as standalone subjects. Ministry of Education data for home economics shows falling rolls — from 15,621 Year 9-13 students in 2003, to just 6326 last year.

The concern, say the experts, is that kids might be learning the hows and whys of what to eat — but they still can't cook dinner.

"I want to see Garden to Table in every school," says Bell. "And we've had some preliminary talks with the Government about how that might happen."

When did it become uncool to cook? Theorists trace declining food literacy back to the post-war manufacturing boom. Pre-packaged meals. Canned foods that could keep for ages. The rise and rise of takeaways. Feminism. Women in the workforce. In the United States, notes Michael Pollan in his book Cooked, KFC marketed its buckets of chicken with the slogan "women's liberation".

Shilei Ralph from Whangaparaoa Primary takes part in the Root to Tip event. Photo / NZ Herald
Shilei Ralph from Whangaparaoa Primary takes part in the Root to Tip event. Photo / NZ Herald

"It's perceived that in homes with resources cooking happens," says Bell. "It doesn't. Lives are busy. Parents are going out for dinner or to an event. Are the children helping make dinner?"

At the Root to Tip competition, everybody starts out with 100 points. They lose marks for lack of seasonality, store-bought ingredients, poor presentation and waste that could be avoided. On every bench there is a white plastic bowl and, when the cooking time is up, the waste will be weighed. Nobody here is peeling a carrot. Stalks will be eaten. Skins will be caramelised. At the Green Bay bench, the liquid from a can of chickpeas is being whipped into a mousse that will sit on top of a kiwifruit jelly to be set inside a kiwifruit skin.

Meadowbank School's Issy Culpan is grating and grating and grating. Is that lemon balm or mint? Crush and sniff and taste. Te Huriri's Ronja Lewandowska Larsen is blitzing beetroot into a waffle mix.

There's a cauliflower pizza on the go at the Whangaparaoa Primary bench. They'll be making chips from the stalks.

"Most people forget about the stalk," says Mia van Zyl. "But we're trying to make no waste."

Why?

"To help global warming," says Shilei Ralph.

Issy Culpan of Meadowbank Primary concentrates on cooking. Photo / NZ Herald
Issy Culpan of Meadowbank Primary concentrates on cooking. Photo / NZ Herald

"And the environment," says Mia. Also, she adds, "it's a good gluten-free alternative."
Check their bowls — the occasional egg shell, a wisp of onion skin. These kids are eating their greens, but they're also figuring out how to use the peel, pips and tips.

The skills and technique are astonishing, but here's what chef Al Brown loves: "They have no fear. They're not worried something won't work. It's like — let's try everything. Last year they made a pesto out of carrot tops. It's really innovative."

His Auckland restaurants Depot and The Fed Deli use rhubarb and silverbeet grown at Meadowbank School's garden. Order a dish using that produce and the money goes to the school. Restaurant staff help out in the garden. Once a fortnight they host 10 students in their commercial kitchens.

"We tell them we cook two tonnes of pork hocks a week and we give them all these statistics to blow their minds and then they go through to Depot and it's a commercial kitchen and everyone's got a knife and there's no seats and there's fire ... and for me, it goes back to two kids who maybe go, 'Shit, that cooking could be a good career.'"

Those two kids. Two little boys at the first Garden to Table school Brown visited. Mischief written all over their faces. He was drawn to them immediately.

"They were really concentrating. I loved that it was real knives, and real chopping boards."
Later, Brown learned the pair were often in trouble; academically, they had problems settling, but on Garden to Table days, "They were quiet as church mice, they were really into it."

It was, he says, one of the most poignant moments in his life. "On a personal level, I found learning in the traditional environment extremely difficult. I'm sure I'm dyslexic and that was never picked up on. And I guess there was just this wave of being back in that situation ... and I just found seeing the kids in that environment, learning in a different way outside the classroom ... just incredibly powerful."

Brown wants other restaurants to adopt Garden to Table schools.

"Obviously the growing of herbs and fruits and vegetables is something wonderful to be around. And getting your hands dirty and getting that connection ... we should all be understanding where our food comes from. This processed food, the way it's taken over lives — it's time we kicked most of it into touch, you know. That's how I feel."

Eden Tinholt, left, and Mila Hrstic, both 9, with some of the vegetables grown by Maungawhau School in the Garden to Table programme. Photo / NZ Herald
Eden Tinholt, left, and Mila Hrstic, both 9, with some of the vegetables grown by Maungawhau School in the Garden to Table programme. Photo / NZ Herald

Back at Root to Tip, the stress is building. Is that potato cake cooked? How much longer? Stop opening the oven! How do you repair a tear in an avocado skin? Was all that oil supposed to be added then? Are the dumplings tender? Are the fritters burning? Stop! Don't put the metal bowl in the microwave! Somewhere, someone drops something ceramic. There's a crash. A split second of panic. The shortbread has to go in the oven. Four minutes. Three minutes ...

Eden Tinholt, 10: "We got the dumplings and the pumpkin pie done, we're hoping they liked it."

Mila Hrstic: "I don't even eat pumpkin, but that was delicious."

The judges will agree. Maungawhau School's dumplings and pie will take them all the way to second place. Te Hurihi's spectacularly colourful waffles (preceded by a course of crispy beans, kale and seriously delicious raw beetroot dip) will place third. The winners — by just one point — are the only mixed team.

Green Bay Primary's Juliet King and Noah Saunders have performed like pros. When that cup broke, they kept going. When that was definitely too much oil, they kept
going. Somehow, they repaired that avocado and baked those shortbread stars with seconds to spare.

Chief judge Paul Jobin tells them: "That light mousse and then that nice gooeyness of the kiwifruit in the bottom — lightbulbs just went off in our heads."

Plus, he says, they were by far the most communicative team.

Juliet grins. "I found out what happens when I get nervous. I talk. A lot. My grandma, she already cried when we made it this far. I don't know what she's going to think when she finds out about this!"