A healthy love for good food

It was Fiona Berkholz’ grandmothers who introduced her to wholesome, old-fashioned country cooking, spawning her own passion for creating healthy recipes.
Fiona now extends her love and knowledge to the minds and mouths of 159 students at Tooradin Primary School each week in her role with Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program as as Kitchen Specialist as well as Garden Specialist, which she shares with lead teacher Rachel Davis.
“I was brought up growing our own vegetables and fruits, and cooking and eating healthy foods in a time when convenience foods were becoming the norm in many households,” Fiona said.
“My parents always instilled the necessity of eating well, and valuing our environment.
My grandmothers were both excellent cooks also. I spent a lot of time with them both as a child, and was always involved and excited by cooking with them.
“My maternal grandmother was an excellent, old-fashioned country cook and taught many of the basics of creating a meal using whatever ingredients were available,” she said.
“She taught me about casseroles and soups and basic baking. My paternal grandmother was more European in her tastes and she introduced me to more exotic foodstuffs – cheeses and pates, fine dining and entertaining.
“Between the two of them, I developed a fascination with the creation and presentation of foods that were both healthy and inviting to the palate. I also love how making good food for people can create a feeling of contentment and accomplishment.”
Fiona takes pride in work, teaching students the importance of growing, harvesting, cooking and sharing a meal.
“The philosophy (of the SAKG program) is surrounding the unfortunate fact that many parents/guardians either do not have the time, or the knowledge to share these skills with their children. At Tooradin PS (as with all the schools in the program) we have an extensive vegetable garden that the students love to maintain, and they are always excited when we harvest a successful crop. Sometimes that means we have a huge crop of one particular vegetable, and they love to see how many different delicious ways we can utilise these ingredients,” Fiona said.
“The aim of the program is to promote delicious over healthy in a way that everyone can see that cooking is a joyful activity and a great way to spend time together as a family. Once we have cooked, we sit down together as a class in our ‘restaurant’ and share the food. There is also an emphasis on a shared meal, as many students don’t sit down at the table with their parents as we did when I was a child.
“Good table manners and appropriate conversation is encouraged, and it is great to hear the students talk about what they enjoy (and sometimes, what they don’t). They encourage each other to try different things and at the end of the meal, the students do all the cleaning up also – washing and drying dishes, wiping benches, tidying up their stations, sweeping floors, hanging up the washing. They are encouraged to feel a sense of ownership about their kitchen.”
Fiona said the community was excited to throw their support behind the program.
“When we cook, we create four different dishes, utilising homegrown produce and also donations from the school and local community. The support is growing rapidly as everyone who hears about it is excited and wants to help,” she said.
“We also could not manage without our parent volunteers.”
Anyone who has ever tried to teach a child to cook would be all too familiar with having to lay down the laws about washing hands, sweeping up the spilled flour, washing those grease-stained pans and not eating the raw batter. So it’s not surprising that Fiona marks this job as the most exhausting thing she has ever done. But the rewards of her job keep her craving more.
“Whether it is watching students learn new skills and demonstrate their ability to cook a recipe with minimal assistance (the Grade 5 and 6 students can now cook independently for the most part), or hearing the Grade 2 students say that the thing they are looking forward to the most in Grade 3 is cooking, I love their enthusiasm, interest and input. For the most part, the students show great interest and are adventurous in trying new and unusual dishes and ingredients,” she said.
“I also get a lot of hugs, and the sight of a conga line of students with watering cans is delicious. My son recently asked ‘how does it feel to be popular?’ and it’s not that at all. I love the feeling that I am helping bring a community together in a healthy, sustainable and highly enjoyable fashion, and in a world that is becoming increasingly artificial, I am teaching my students to love the feeling of digging in the garden, and giving them important life skills they can take with them wherever they go. Who knows? Some of my students may become chefs, or simply good cooks who know how to put together a range of ingredients to make a good meal.”
Fiona said students were also learning to be creative, work as a team, and are even swapping canteen meals for healthier options.
“When I first started with the program mid-2013, if I had suggested to students that I would be offering homemade vegetable soups once a week, I would have had very few orders. This year I have instituted a soup day, which will continue in the cold months. To date, I receive over 100 orders each week,” she said.
“Parents are often stunned that their children will eat healthy, homemade soup instead of visiting the canteen. There is also a learning component in regards to literacy and numeracy – learning to measure ingredients and also cooking terms. I also have parents telling me that their previously disinterested child is now offering to help prepare the evening meal, and sometimes even cleaning up afterwards, and sometimes, showing them new skills!”