Helping the most vulnerable in her community is something Michelle Leslie has always felt compelled to do, but she really started doing something about it some 10 years ago after dropping her daughter off at her lower decile school one day.

“She had to get to school early one day because there was a day trip that her class was going on. There were all these children in the hall, not going on the field trip, and I said to my daughter, ‘Why are all these kids here so early?’ She told me that these are the kids that come for the free breakfast. I asked why, and she told me that they don’t get fed at home.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’d really love to help do something about that’.”

Suggesting that the altruistic instinct could be genetic, Michelle laughs when she tells us that soon after, she was able to solve the mystery of the perpetually empty Leslie family cupboards; her daughter admitted to nicking food from the pantry so that she could take it to school and share it with her less fortunate friends.

Breakfasts for kids

Down the track a bit, Michelle found herself working as general manager of a local restaurant; the Aberdeen, as it was then known. With the cooperation of the owners, Michelle saw a great chance to start realising her goals; she organised a scheme whereby kids in need from lower decile schools in the area were brought to the restaurant in the morning, were cooked a hearty breakfast, and were then sent to their day’s learning with healthy lunches under their arms.

The story caught the attention of media at the time; the now-defunct current affairs television programme Close Up made the trip to the Wairarapa to film Kids Kai Time in action. Michelle hoped at the time that the attention might inspire some financial assistance; this didn’t happen unfortunately.

After moving on from her employment at the restaurant, Michelle knew she wanted to concentrate more on her charity work. The problem though, it seemed, was that doing good in the community would continue to mean spending a lot of her own money, which was beginning to become unsustainable.

“I ended up spending a fair bit of my own money going around the low decile schools and giving needy kids breakfast.

“The school breakfasts programme hasn’t been active over the last few months, but we’re still coordinating donated food, and we still have the support of community partners; we work with a restaurant called The Vibe in Masterton – the same restaurant I used to work at, now with different owners – which does two-for-one meals, available to anyone, but which come with a catch: to be eligible, customers must donate at least two non-perishable food items to Kids Kai Time. The new owners were really keen to keep doing something similar to what I’d been doing while I was managing the place.

“In the end though, I had to take a step back, and have a think about how I could make the whole thing sustainable, because I couldn’t keep pouring my own money into it. That’s where the growing domes and the whole ‘dome to dish/seed to feed’ programme came into being. It’s based on the principal of the old saying: ‘Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime’.”

Growing classrooms

Michelle is talking about the programme that the Kids Kai Time charity is due to roll out in term 1 2016, called ‘Dome to Dish/Seed to Feed’.

Basically, schools will be able to apply to the charity, and, if certain criteria are met, Dome to Dish will provide the school with what is essentially a greenhouse, in the shape of a geodesic dome. Michelle, though, eschews the term ‘greenhouse’, and says we should be thinking about the domes as ‘growing classrooms’.

Michelle was inspired by the work of the Eden Project, a social enterprise, educational charity, and sustainability project, which has become a major tourist attraction in Cornwall, England, and uses geodesic domes they call ‘biomes’ to preserve and showcase the world’s most important plants.

Michelle constructs them with the help of volunteer friends. They can be constructed in three different size options, with a base diameter of 6, 8, or 10 metres.

Geodesic domes are based on the inherent properties of the triangle; the dome is composed of triangular cells, meaning that stress is distributed evenly, giving the structure great strength. The dome shape also deflects high wind efficiently, as well as giving the ‘growing classroom’ the ability to collect light and heat all day.

Greenhouse film is used for the ‘skin’ of the dome, which is stretched over a steel and timber frame. There is capacity for two layers of film to be applied, maximising the growing potential of the dome during winter months.

‘Heat banks’ are another essential feature. These involve barrels painted black and filled with water, which absorb and trap heat, releasing it at night when the temperature drops. This keeps the ambient temperature of the dome above the crucial 12-degree threshold necessary for growth. Of course, this feature also means that there can be outdoor learning opportunities all year round, says Michelle.

“The domes are, in fact, ‘all-year-round growing classrooms’. This is what makes this programme unique, I believe; there’s learning to be had all year round, because the domes provide shelter to both plants and students in winter, when your average outdoor garden isn’t producing, and it’s too cold to do much learning with anyway.”

Pilot dome programme

During this last term of 2015, the dome programme is being piloted at Auckland’s Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate. When we spoke, Michelle was looking forward to travelling north to install two domes at the school. Michelle says SEHC has all the ingredients to get the most out of their brand-new growing classrooms: level ground, all-day sun, and good positioning to make the most of winter sun. They also have the invaluable resource of a full-time gardener at the school who is enthusiastic about the scheme; in fact, he’s managed to rope a few granddads into helping him maintain the domes, even during school holidays.

Michelle says that there’s so much potential for cross-curricular learning in the Dome to Dish scheme, not just learning about sustainability, growing food, preserving our environment, and the inherent sense of achievement when harvesting something students have grown themselves. Michelle imagines that the school will be able to sell their produce, or seedlings, and therefore there are clear connections to financial literacy.

Michelle has now received backing from the Lotteries Commission – who’ve suggested that she roll the programme out nationally, something she’s hoping to do next year as well – so the dome that’s the main resource of the Dome to Dish programme is available free of charge to schools meeting certain criteria.

For more information on the Dome to Dish programme, and to contact Michelle, go to www.kidskaitime.co.nz.

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