Born in: Mornington Peninsula, Victoria
Home Town: Melbourne
It’s the end of winter when The Power Index strolls through the birthplace of Stephanie Alexander's scheme to change the way Aussie kids eat, the much-loved Collingwood College kitchen garden.
The garden is a little bare, although the brussels sprouts and silver beet are growing beautifully and Alexander is jealous of how well the cauliflowers are holding up compared to her own. A mini-orchard stands like a guard row. Nearby the gardening class is busy building a wall, with each child lining up holding a brick, waiting for their turn with the cement.
The former chef spent 40 years in hospitality and ran a string of successful restaurants. But now her role as chief spruiker for the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation is much more front-of-house. She launches into the spiel she’s given to hundreds to governments, corporations, schools and individuals over the last decade to win support for her program.
Recently Alexander secured $5.4 million in federal funding, which will see the kitchen garden program rolled out to 10% of Australian schools in the next three years. Alexander calls it "a watershed moment" for the organisation. It was a deal that sealed her position on top of the Food power list.
"I hate using the word obesity but I’m accepting the fact that I have to," Alexander tells The Power Index. "That’s been hard for me because I believe as a foodie that if you’re raised in a way to really enjoy fresh food and to love its qualities and the fact that it tastes lovely, that you will come to eat fresh, seasonal food and you will automatically develop understanding about balance and moderation."
But many children aren’t being raised this way, with a quarter of all Australian kids considered overweight or obese. Enter the Kitchen Garden Program currently being taught in 267 primary schools across Australia. It’s deeply integrated with each school’s curriculum, meaning each week students spend class time working in the garden and cooking up a meal in the kitchen, usually taught by specialist horticulture or kitchen staff.
The aim is to teach kids to love healthy food. "Pleasure has to be stressed, because I think nobody is going to change if the alternative is something horrible," says Alexander.
A typical class menu might include linguine with lemon, parsley and mint, served with a celery and parmesan salad and Moroccan-spiced silver beet. Some schools also keep chickens -- one even has a trout farm -- or other animals as part of the program.
The program is changing the way Australian children -- and their parents -- eat. "I really think she’s the most influential and powerful chef in this country," says the NSW ambassador for the kitchen garden program, chef Kylie Kwong.
"Her garden schools program is just phenomenal," adds restaurateur Neil Perry. "It’s not only a brilliant idea, but the whole execution and the commitment she has to it is just extraordinary."
White-haired and a touch deaf, Alexander is a steely-eyed workaholic. While warm and funny at times, she’s also intimidating, doesn’t muck around and is maniacal about detail.
After wandering through the school’s kitchen, where another class is cutting up onion and garlic for pumpkin soup, The Power Index sits down with Alexander for a chat in the old home economics room next door.
While her media profile may have grown, it’s clear Alexander sees interviews as a necessary evil to gain support for the foundation: "certainly the last thing I want to be doing". She adds that she also "hates" the constant lobbying and pushing for money her role now involves.
What she does enjoy is visiting schools in the program. "Being me, it’s very easy to get flattened by the challenges," admits Alexander. "Therefore if you go to a school and you see happy faces and you see learning actually happening in front of your very eyes, you do feel very inspired."
Even then the foodie struggles to balance her love of cooking with her leadership role. "It’s pretty hard to be 'the visitor' and also roll your sleeves up and make the pizza dough," she explains. But sometimes she just jumps in and gets covered in flour anyway.
It’s not just interviews and lobbying that infuriates Alexander. "It disturbs me that so many people get anxious about cooking, rather than just picking up a bit of food and cooking it," she says, as she hits the bench in anger.
That was the reason she wrote The Cook’s Companion back in 1996, one of the most successful cookbooks Australia has ever seen. Its publisher, Julie Gibbs from Lantern, a subsidiary of Penguin, names it as the book she’s most proud of in her career.
"Stephanie has that rare talent of writing as well as she cooks," says Gibbs. Recently Alexander penned her memoir A Cooks Life, which adds to the hefty collection of cookbooks she’s written, her column on kitchen gardens for Gourmet Traveller and her regular writing for the foundation.
Previously the Kitchen Garden Foundation received a hodgepodge of state and federal money, plus funding from corporations and individuals. As part of the new cash injection the foundation is slightly loosening the rules to make it cheaper and easier for schools to join the schools program.
The big focus for Alexander is reaching one tenth of Australian primary schools. "I think that once you get to 10% of anything, it’s a tipping point," she explains. "It can’t be ignored."
Once those additional 400+ schools are growing and cooking veggies, then the 71-year-old might wind back her hectic schedule.
"I should be able to slow down at that point because you’ve achieved something really meaningful," she tells The Power Index.
We reckon generations to come will thank her.