Westport is no stranger to natural disasters and if recent major flooding has highlighted anything, it is the need for people to become resilient and self-sufficient. 

Richelle Schaper, project manager of the Kōanga Kai initiative at Te Hā o Kawatiri, says recent floods interrupted power supplies, made many homes unliveable and cut road access to the town. Some residents had lost everything. 

“That has highlighted the need for food security for our whānau. I’ve always been a strong advocate for establishing māra kai – we’ve had one for the past four years – but recent events have really shown that we need to be prepared for disasters, that   need to learn the skills that will make us self-sufficient,” she says. 

Richelle (Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāparangi, Ngāti Kahungunu), says Te Hā o Kawatiri adopted the Kōanga Kai initiative in September 2021 and funding has secured a 30-hour a week paid role, which enables her to better oversee and manage their large māra kai.  

“One whānau member told me the relaxed, welcoming nature of the māra had ‘saved her life’ by giving her a respite when she felt unwell. It’s become a space of wellbeing for others and some, who may have only dabbled in gardening previously, have gone home and dug up half their yards to keep growing things,” she says. 

“It’s beautiful to see the Kōanga Kai project take hold like that. We had a bit of a slow start but it’s picking up now through word of mouth and it’s wonderful to see whānau developing a sense of purpose, as they grow their own kai – and in many cases, also learn to cook it.” 

From the outset, Richelle has wanted to reach as many whānau as possible and although it’s been challenging to fit everything into her busy schedule, she says promotion through the Te Hā community is starting to build momentum. 

“You can give a whānau a kai voucher and they can buy low-quality food for their family for a couple of days but we would much rather give them the resources and skills they need to feed themselves with healthy kai for life.” 

Through the Kōanga Kai project, volunteers spend time in the māra learning a range of gardening skills like fertilising soils, mulching, planting seedlings, how to harvest and seed gathering.  

“There’s a lot of knowledge sharing and we’re all always learning. A couple of the whānau enjoy harvesting kai from the māra for lunch, making fritters, kamokamo flips, delicious salads. We don’t have a kitchen but we have an old barbcue that was donated to us. That’s been a massive learning curve for some people – to see just how much you can achieve with so little,” Richelle says. 

Māra whānau are encouraged to harvest produce before they leave and many are reporting visiting regularly in theor own time, to harvest kai for their tea. 

“They awhi us and we manaaki them. That’s how it works here. We get such a buzz out of each other. We’re all learning as we go and we’re now talking about visiting each other’s home māra as well to help each other out and get some inspiration from other gardens. We don’t have the capacity for that yet but it’s lovely to see those conversations taking place. 

“I love gardening and I’ve always wondered about teaching others. Then Kōanga Kai came along and gave me the way. It’s been an incredible opportunity and I love seeing others become inspired  by what we’re doing here. I love being able to share my passion with my whānau.”