Community gardens and well-being: Growing kai and a sense of community in a cost-of-living crisis
More people are struggling with increasing debt and using food banks and buy now pay later services to get their essentials. The cost of living is impacting mental health, too.
Shaun Robinson, chief executive at the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, told Consumer how many societal factors influence well-being, and currently the cost-of-living crisis is significantly impacting our mental and physical hauora (health).
Community gardens may be one way we can provide kai while also tending to our mental health. Consumer visited some community gardens and urban farms to see how they are supporting people through the cost-of-living crisis.
Supporting a community
Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei run Pourewa Māra Kai, a community garden in Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland), to provide support for their people in the face of the cost-of-living crisis.
The garden is used to help feed people within their community, as well as practise Maramataka (Māori lunar calendar), and rongoā Māori (Māori wellness practices). All these things contribute to a balanced life alongside nature and within a collective.
I met with Levi, the lead of the māra kai (food/vegetable garden), when I visited. He showed me around the garden and introduced me to several others working that day.
The garden’s design immediately stood out to me, with the plots and plants all arranged in a circle, which, in Te Ao Māori, holds mauri (vital essence, life force, special nature) and symbolises the continuity of life. It was designed by Rob Small, director and chairman of LivCom, an international organisation which rewards best environmental practices to establish healthier communities. Rob is dedicated to this sort of kaupapa (principles and ideas which act as a foundation for action) across his mahi.
Pathways encircle the gardens and run through it in quadrants. Large greenery burst out of the soil. The pure abundance of lettuce and bok choy in the only 4-year-old garden took me by surprise.
Everything was covered with a netting. “We have an army of Pukeko; that's why we need all this kind of stuff,” Levi said, gesturing to the netting and some low plastic huts. “They're like little hot rooms, to try to keep [the plants] warm [and] also keep the bugs out, but mainly our Pukeko.” Apparently, after everyone has left for the day, the birds all march up the hill to have a feed.
Further down the hill lies a beautiful awa (river) where Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei can fish, and while there is a road on the opposite side of the garden, I could barely hear it from where we sat down below.
While visiting Pourewa Māra Kai, the beauty and strength of the community and people inspired me. Seeing young tāne harvesting vegetables to bring to kuia and kokoro at home – the community care was heartwarming and reminded me of what we can do when we work together.
The manaakitanga (hospitality, support) I received, from my unexpected welcome through to my departure, demonstrated the mauri and mana (influence, power) of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei. When I left, Levi gave me a big bunch of bok choy and some lettuce to take home.
Pourewa Māra Kai always welcomes visitors and volunteers.
Finding meaningfulness in nature
While in Tāmaki Makaurau, I also visited Kelmarna Community Farm, a 40-year-old organic urban farm in Ponsonby. The general manager, Sarah, sat down with me to discuss how invaluable these spaces are for communities, particularly those where nature is less accessible.
Kelmarna runs a therapeutic garden program, which offers support for people with mental health challenges or intellectual disabilities. Sarah told Consumer how the rōpū (group) develop their gardening skills, grow their own food, and learn some maintenance and cooking skills (making lunches), among other things.
There are many benefits for those involved in the program, which acts as an effective community-based therapy.
At Kelmarna, there are six staff members, but they still rely on volunteers to help maintain full capacity at the farm.
“[Volunteers are] really important to what we do and to our kaupapa, because having community involvement [where they are] able to benefit from the gardens is really important,” Sarah told Consumer.
As the urban farm has developed to include more activities, they’ve seen a gradual increase in engagement. “It's not like we've seen a massive leap at any one time [...] but it's clear that more and more people are disillusioned with kind of the normal way of life and are looking for something a little bit more meaningful.”
“Learning how to grow their own food and growing food in a way that takes care of the environment is something that obviously inspires a lot of people [...] so, we see many people coming with those kinds of reasons of wanting something more meaningful and to connect to something that can help with that,” Sarah told us.
Currently, at Kelmarna, staff are trying to find new ways to do more and ensure the land is cared for as kaitiaki (trusted guardians). “And also, [we want] the opportunity to use this land to really demonstrate what a more sustainable and regenerative local food system could look like,” Sarah said.
Cyclical care and healing in nature
Sarah believes there are a lot of therapeutic benefits for everyone who gets involved at Kelmarna.
This is a belief shared with Kathryn, the project lead for For The Love Of Bees in Tāmaki Makaurau. Here, they run a model urban farm organic market garden (OMG), focusing on biology-first farming, as well as education programs telling the story of the interconnectedness between bees, plants and soil microbiology, in a cyclical way to help teach visitors about this farming practice.
“We were really driven by the thought that if people could set up a farm like this within walking distance in every community … people can really touch in to see how these systems can provide for people, that they’re abundant, dense and diverse,” Kathryn told Consumer. “Just to be able to be in that kind of space is healing.”
When Kathryn told me the charity’s story of interconnectedness and the symbiotic relationship between plants and soil, it reminded me of my relationship with nature – or how I hope it to be. Giving and receiving back – cyclical and shared together.
I felt the healing of the space when I stepped on to each of these gardens. While I am not a local of central Tāmaki Makaurau, and live surrounded by nature in Pōneke (Wellington), it felt incredibly grounding. Not only that, but seeing food grown and cared for, harvested, and packed for pick-up was inspiring.
Seeing something you may think of as being out of touch or taken for granted, being grown on a small plot in central Auckland, made me want to look into growing my own food.
Each week, workers and volunteers at For The Love Of Bees urban farm OMG pack boxes of fresh veggies and herbs for local customers to pick up on the day of harvest. Their capacity ranges from 36-40 customers over the year, off a 450sqm site, with one box of fresh food per customer a week, over 52 weeks.
When I arrived at the farm some of these boxes were being packed. I watched the vibrant vegetables go straight from the ground and into boxes for pick-up and thought how nice it would be to just walk by on your way home and have fresh, organic food waiting for you.
Not only this, but when I’m in the supermarket and see an “imperfect” carrot, I typically don’t select that carrot (even when I know better); however, I didn’t feel that distaste here. I said this to Kathryn, theorising it may be because you can see the vegies’ environment and conditions – it just feels different.
Kathryn agreed that can happen. “I guess you can trust the food more, hey? And it doesn’t need to rely on its appearance as much, [because] you see the system working.”
Connection to our whenua
Te Whare Tapa Whā, developed by Māori health advocate and psychiatrist Sir Mason Durie, is a health model designed to understand Māori health and wellbeing using the visuals of a wharenui (meeting house).
The walls represent taha wairua (spiritual wellbeing), taha hinengaro (mental and emotional wellbeing), taha tinana (physical wellbeing) and taha whānau (family and social wellbeing). The foundation of the whare is the whenua (land).
It is believed that the balance of the walls determines someone’s wellness and health, with the whenua being necessary for supporting it all. When we apply this wellness approach to people's engagement with community gardens, with the access to whenua strengthening all the other aspects, we can see it in practice.
Due to colonisation in Aotearoa, Māori, as a collective, can never be wholly well as tino rangatiratanga (self-determination, sovereignty) over the whenua has been largely stripped away. However, seeing iwi like Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei practicing their culture through connections to whenua, as well as by whanaungatanga (kinship) and manaakitanga, we are reminded of Māori strength and resilience.
After visiting these gardens and speaking to the people involved, I felt inspired. That night, I looked up community gardens near me and found one in my neighbourhood. I’m no gardener, but the feelings experienced while being amongst the plants and people in Tāmaki Makaurau was heartwarming.
It really highlighted, for me, the value of those spaces for mental clarity, community and connection – which all have huge benefits for us individually as well as collectively.
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