Inside Australia's first vegan preschool

Penelope Green

Penelope Green | 29th June 2021

Circular economy: Llewellyn Jones and Sustainable Play Preschool director Kirsty Parker

Where were you raised and what influenced your career?

I grew up in Sydney and moved to Newcastle in 2019. My parents had moved to Newie for work nine years before I did and have been the largest influence on my career. They’ve always supported me in any pursuit.

What was your pathway after the HSC?

I began a carpentry apprenticeship and completed the builders course before contracting as a carpenter.

Why did you become a vegan?

My parents allowed my brother and I to eat whatever we wanted but were vegetarians themselves. At age 10 I followed my older brother in becoming a vegetarian. At 19 I was working and having varied conversations over smoko. One man posed to me that I was a hypocrite for being a vegetarian that didn’t eat meat but drank milk. This took me by surprise. He was eating a bacon and egg roll so I knew he wasn’t a vegetarian but his stirring prompted me to do a bit more research into my dietary choices.

Why did you create the Sustainable Play Preschool?

I always wanted to create my own business. In 2016 I began thinking about teaching children appreciation for our world’s resources. I worked in an early education service to develop the idea.

What is your business model?

Sustainable Play Preschool is a 47-child preschool with long day care hours. It is the first plant-based early education service in Australia. We run on the principles of a circular economy and the children learn sustainable practices by experiencing them.

I began thinking about teaching children appreciation for our world’s resources

Llewellyn Jones

How does the preschool space reflect its values?

Where possible we used recycled and recyclable materials in the construction. You’ll see this in the recycled hardwood in the gardens and verandas and our preference for metal, concrete and masonry over anything fibre cement based. We have a unique ‘Creekscape’ design by Edible Kids Gardens with a manual water pump, integrated garden beds, sand pits, grassy areas, a mulberry tree for climbing and more. The resources inside our preschool rooms are made from mostly natural materials. There’s nothing that requires batteries and minimal to no plastic.

Many preschools incorporate sustainability. Does yours takes it a step further with its plant-based menu?

Our preschoolers compost food waste in our worm bins, garden with our garden educator, cook with our chef, participate in our bush kindy program and spend most of their time outdoors. Our menu is 100% plant-based with 80% organic Australian-grown produce. There is a solar panel system and 90,000 litres of rainwater storage for our laundry, toilets and gardens. We have a clothing exchange and use non-toxic cleaning chemicals. I could go on!

Why did you choose a plant-based menu?

We believe it’s a great choice for children from both a sustainability and nutrition perspective. It reduces the environmental cost that animal products have on deforestation, species loss, water usage and pollution, land usage, carbon emissions and waste byproducts. Our menu is dietitian approved. It provides children with ample opportunities to fulfil the often unmet Australian Dietary Guidelines on servings of vegetables, legumes and fruit that prevent obesity and chronic disease. Parents have been thrilled with the food, requesting dishes for themselves, and pleased that their child is eating foods that they may not have the time to prepare at home.

Social media comments on the vegan menu both critical and supportive. What response have you had from the children?

They haven’t noticed anything unusual about the menu. Their favourite things to eat have been dishes they’ve helped prepare like damper, salad from the garden and pizzas with their own toppings. All children are given “learning bowls” at meal times where they can place foods that they’re not sure about tasting yet. We have had the pleasure of watching children who’ve been named “fussy eaters” by their parents eat sweet potato, minestrone soup, tofu scramble wraps, damper and more. Our meals are informed by nutrition professionals and use strategies to give children agency over their food – it seems to be working! Parents have made positive comments, wishing they could eat the food too.

What messages do you think kids take from eating a plant-based menu?

There’ve been no comments about “plant-based” or “vegan” – the children just choose what they’d like to eat and place any new foods in their learning bowls. We use the “division of responsibility” method, allowing them to serve themselves, again giving them the agency to try what they’d like and leave what they’re not ready for yet.

The preschool just opened. Any plans for others?

We would love to open more but no immediate plans. We are focused on making our first school a success. We have been delighted by the inquiries from all across Australia requesting a centre in their area.

And business goals?

With enough interest, we look forward to opening another Hunter centre. A plant-based cookbook with tried and true kid favourites is in the works.