Janice Lee started Koha Kai in 2015 as a way to provide to support and develop the skills of a small group of people, many of whom were living with disabilities. The initiative has flourished and in the past seven years, there have been big changes.

What started as a pilot programme with a small team responsible for providing hot, nutritious lunches to an Invercargill school, has expanded to include a commercial kitchen, three large māra kai and a trainee system that encourages people to gain employment, confidence and a sense of purpose. Many of the initial trainees in fact, have made significant changes to their lives and are now back working for the organisation.

Janice (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Porou), is Pouārahi at Koha Kai and she says that funding from Te Pūtahitanga o Te Waipounamu has been transformative, and with the introduction of the Kōanga Kai initiative, they have been able to cement their kaupapa of working with a number of other established community groups like the Murihiku Kai Collective.

“For us, Kōanga Kai is an evolving process, which is overseen by Amber-Jade Brass (Ngāti Moetonga, Ngāti Waiora, Tainui). We’ve always worked with whānau to encourage them to become more self-sufficient but Kōanga Kai enables us to be more structured in our approach to the development of horticultural skills to the wider public.

“We are a kaupapa Māori organisation but we want to embrace the whole community of Waihōpai and Murihiku, not just Māori. We want to encourage a much wider group of people to learn the skills that will enable them to be self-sufficient with their kai. The more māra kai we have in Invercargill the more people will be able to benefit from better, cheaper kai,” she says. “It is important for the resilience of our community and our whānau that we ensure our region retains or regains its food sovereignty – and becomes more secure around our food systems.”

Koha Kai has three main māra kai including a large market garden at the Korimako Dominican Ecology Centre, plus gardens at Te Wharekura o Arowhenua and a collaborative garden at East Road – which Koha Kai is developing as part of a joint venture with a National Disability Service Provider. The Koha Kai gardeners consist of two full time and two part-time gardeners, and their trainees also look after several kaumātua gardens.

“This gives the kaumātua some company and māra produce and the trainees learn to build relationships and gardening skills. It’s a win for everyone,” Janice says.

“It’s about taking people off the sofa and taking them out to the whenua. Many come with no knowledge at all but we teach them how to grow food, and with the help of Kōanga Kai, we can teach more people how to be independent. We can help them develop the skills they need to be employed in the food sector.

“Half of our own staff are people who have come through our training programme. It changes lives and people feel valued because they have a sense of purpose. It builds confidence and self-esteem. It’s transformative and this is how it should be in the disability sector.

The Koha Kai community kitchen uses much of the produce from their māra kai to supply nutitious lunches to several schools through the Lunches in Schools Programme. It also makes ready-made meals for the community, which sell at very reasonable prices through social enterprise partner, The Pantry in Invercargill.

 “Everything we do at Koha Kai is about creating equity for people in the community in which they live,” says Janice.

“Our core business is that we are a charitable organisation offering vocational education and and training services provider for people with disabilities and everything else we now do has stemmed from that.

“Being a part of Kōanga Kai has been invaluable to us and I want to congratulate Te Pūtahitanga for taking the intiative with this programme – for being so responsive to community needs. It became apparent during the first lockdown back in 2020 that we needed more resilience and resourcefulness through food security and self-sufficiency and Kōanga Kai is a brilliant proactive stepping stone towards building that resilience in the Māori community.”