Māra kai is not simply about growing a garden. For Una Stephens, of Te Āwhina Marae in Motueka, it’s about so much more, it’s about reconnection to the whenua, nourishing whānau and reigniting Mātauranga Māori me ona tikanga, into the daily lives of whānau. 

Tikanga Māori forms the basis of Te Āwhina Marae māra kai sustainable practices. Funding from the Te Pūtahitanga o Te Waipounamu Kōanga Kai initiative, has enabled the marae to develop a functioning māra kai and create a wānanga space for Kōanga Kai whānau. 

Una (Ngāti Rarua, Te Ātiawa, Ngai te Rangi), is the Kōanga Kai Co-ordinator for the marae and says the māra kai has been an important tool for teaching whānau about good clean organic kai, spiritual growth, (taha wairua), mental health and wellbeing (taha hinengaro) and physical wellness through mahi (taha tinana). 

“Māra kai is my lane, my happy place, I see it as a way for whānau to develop skills, gain knowledge, grow nourishing wholesome food and create sustainable kai-producing practices. They can learn how to bottle, preserve, make delicious kai from the māra, save money, forge relationships and ultimately create a likeminded hāpori.   

“I grew up in a time when every household grew a garden, everyone shared, exchanged and bartered, that’s how I see our future,” she says.  

As supermarket prices for fresh fruit and vegetables skyrocket making it unaffordable for families, Kōanga Kai was initiated at a critical time. 

The Kōanga Kai contract started in July 2021 and by August, hard-working whānau and friends began repurposing the existing fallow marae māra. The greenhouse was removed, three raised gardens for kaumātua were built, the tunnel house was re-sited, the land cleared, and the soil enriched with organic matter. 

 “We now have a dual space in which to grow kai for the marae and a functioning work and learn space for our Kōanga Kai whānau Una says. 

 “Planning, recruiting, sourcing and organising resources for Kōanga Kai recipients followed. By October we had recruited 17 whānau and in November, we ran our first Kōanga Kai wānanga on planting out seedlings. 

“Given the time of year it was important to ensure whānau had kai in the ground and were able to harvest during the summer months and taste the fruits of their labour.”  

Feedback from whānau has been encouraging – “I’m saving money by growing my own food;” “Working in my māra makes me feel well;” “My kids are eating kai I grew, yay;” and “Kids are over salad, too bad it’s on the menu again tonight.”   

“In keeping with the original Te Pūtahitanga Kōanga Kai kaupapa, it was important to design a plan that reflected what is uniquely Te Āwhina Marae – and to honour the mātauranga me ona tikanga of our tūpuna and create sustainable kai producing practices.     

“I strongly believe a long-term plan gives whānau a solid, well-grounded understanding and knowledge base, that will allow them to thrive, feed themselves, our mokopuna and wider whānau. 

She says that using the marae māra as a work and learn space has allowed them to develop a seasonal plan; June-August focuses on completing jobs in preparation for Spring, September-December is about preparing the māra for planting, growing seedlings, planting out, care and maintenance.  

“To date we have successfully completed the first of four wānanga planned for the year, plus two Work and Learn wānanga These are run monthly and decided on by our Kōanga Kai whānau. All wānanga begin with karakia and waiata, and finish with wholesome shared kai. We leave with full puku, full hearts and a desire to come back to mahi some more.” 

‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts’.  (Winston Churchill)