When Riwai Grace and his wife Cate decided to create a māra kai in Hoon Hay, they saw it as a way to foster intergenerational change – a place where struggling rangatahi in particular, could find comfort, connection and kai. 

It was to be a place where everyone could learn about sustainable food production, cooking and tradition – where they could learn off each other and connect around the kai they had all helped to grow and prepare for the table. Less than a year after they received their first round of Te Pūtahitanga o Te Waipounamu Kōanga Kai funding in November 2021, Cate (Kāti Mamoe, Waitaha, Kāi Tahu), says interest in the project has been phenomenal. 

“Our Whānau Whanake team has been heavily involved in the Omicron response, so we knew that a lot of people were feeling isolated and having difficulty accessing reasonably priced kai. We wanted to show them that growing your own garden and preparing your own food was enjoyable and sustainable,” she says. 

Whānau Whanake was established as a community-based social enterprise after both Riwai (Kāi Tahu, Te Whānau-Apanui, Ngāti Porou), and Cate were diagnosed with chronic health conditions in 2005.  It quickly became apparent to them that many mainstream health providers were not equipped to work with the whole whānau, or within a framework of traditional Māori values. They wanted to create a whānau ora approach that would cater for others with similar health challenges, where everyone could share the same goal of living a healthier life. 

“This kaupapa is a way of life for us and we’re privileged to have our eldest niece, Lou McLeod (Kāi Tahu, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāti Porou, Samoa), working with us as one of the tūhono in our māra kai space,” says Cate. 

“She’s helped us create a space where we can support other whānau, and the Kōanga Kai initiative has been a very positive step forward in our whānau-centred approach to building cultural reconnections and to encouraging whānau to take ownership of their own lives and their own hauora.” 

The current māra kai covers approximately 50 square metres, with raised beds of differing heights and easy-access pathways between, accessible to wheelchairs and walkers, so everyone can participate.  

“We work in a kaupapa Māori way and most of our whānau have chronic health or disability issues. We now have a database of over 100 rangatahi, who come to the māra kai for various wānanga and our “Who’s coming for kai” events, where everyone gathers for shared meals made from our own produce.” 

Cate says those events, where rangatahi engage with Tūhono Riwai to help barbecue, or make fresh pizzas in the garden pizza oven, provide the perfect, relaxed learning environment where they can learn from each other and from kaumātua. 

“Our original intention was to take a ‘garden to plate’ approach but we quickly realised that it’s just as important to focus on whānau and connection. Now, when there are twenty of us sitting at three big tables and the kai comes, that’s when a lot of the learning and connection happens.” 

Cate says the 2022 round of Kōanga Kai funding will go towards creating whānau seedling packs and helping them to create their own māra kai. There has also been an ongoing interest in maramataka, and plans are afoot to continue providing resources and wānanga on basic gardening topics like composting and worm farming. 

“This has been such an exciting and rewarding initiative to be involved in and it’s been a joy to see young ones becoming so involved. I see the māra kai as the planting of the kākano – showing our tamariki and rangatahi what they can achieve in terms of food sustainability.  

“It’s about empowering our whole whānau to lead their own health journey, and I applaud Te Pūtahitanga for their vision. These projects don’t happen without someone being brave and courageous in taking the first steps towards self-sustainability and establishing māra kai is the perfect way for whānau to reconnect with the whenua in their own backyards.  

“It’s part of our heritage and it gives our people hope.”