Urban agriculture in south Auckland
In a large south Auckland suburb, one school has seized an opportunity to boost its students’ food resilience, support their community and transform valuable but unused land into a productive urban oasis.
The many ways one school community is boosting local food resilience.
The vegetables here were selected specifically for being familiar, easy to grow and easy to eat.
IRegular crops here include peas, tomatoes, radishes, lettuces, brassics, silverbeet, root veges and herbs – all spray-free and grown according to regenerative permaculture practices.
t was not the horticulture or science students who first spotted the potential of the empty piece of land next to Manurewa High in south Auckland, now a full-fledged m¯ara kai feeding thousands in the community.
It was the students in the school’s award-winning Business Academy.
Challenged to harness their creativity and entrepreneurship to make a positive impact on their community, the students envisioned using the area as a launching pad for a sustainable social enterprise that would not only benefit their families and neighbours but also, in the process, open up areas of learning within the curriculum in ways that were both practical and relevant to their circumstance.
“The idea and model initially came through the students about three to five years ago,” says principal
Pete Jones. He ran with the idea, knocking on doors and facilitating meetings with those who could help.
From those beginnings, Pete estimates that more than 300 students are now involved with the project – known as Te Maara Kai O Wirihana – on some level.
Among them are those working towards credits in subjects that are not – at first glance – obviously related to the business of sowing and growing. It is hoped that the learnings here will ripple out to those who will eventually take up careers in hospitality and catering, business and project management, media and design, construction, marketing and environmental sciences as well as the primary industries, which is, as Pete points out, a big employer in New Zealand. “Lots of urban kids don’t realise there is this pathway as well, and we try to open their eyes to all the possibilities,” he adds.
Head gardener Paige Dobbs was a student here. She had studied and worked in the mara¯ before graduating in 2018, and credits her time here for awakening her passion for plants. “We had to cover a lot of the theory before coming out to the garden for the practical work,” she explains.
Today, she’s charged with much of the garden maintenance and also coordinates the schedule of volunteers – comprising former and current students, teachers and members of the community – who work here outside of school hours.
One of those volunteers is Savanna Guptill, who graduated last year. She is now considering a career in botany or horticulture. “I’ve realised I like being outdoors and working with plants,” she says. “I’d like to get a job in a nursery or garden centre. That would suit me.”
The veges were selected specifically for being familiar, easy to grow and easy to eat, says permaculture tutor Rory Fogerty, who helped develop the initial course. “It was a deliberate choice to do that,” he explains, in order to encourage participation.
Together with his partner Jennifer Kerr, Rory owns and runs the 12-acre Permakai Farm in Waiuku, some 40km from Manurewa. Like many
market gardeners, he is used to sharing his knowledge and experience with visitors, so was not surprised to find how much there was for urban kids to learn about growing food – from which part of the plant to eat and where to find the potatoes and carrots hidden in the soil, to propagation, sowing seeds and transplanting seedlings. “We did a lot of practical, hands-on study, to keep the students engaged,” Rory adds.
The abundant rows of edibles sit on 1.6 acres belonging to the Counties Manukau District Health Board.
The land backs on to the Manukau Superclinic, a large hospital providing specialist care and day procedures. The Puhinui Stream – an important link to the area’s cultural and ecological heritage – runs between the clinic and the school.
When the school asked to use the land, the Middlemore Foundation – the charitable trust of the DHB – came on board to provide support. “Our goal has always been to improve the lifestyle and health outcomes of our community, And this m¯ara is a great proactive and holistic way towards that goal,” says CEO Sandra Geange. “We also approach other foundations and trusts, and work to connect people with the expertise to help.” Other stakeholders lending their skills and assistance include Manurewa Marae and Kaahui Ako O Manurewa (a multicultural community of learning made up of seven schools and 5000 students in the area).
This collective investment of time and resources adds to the growing momentum for urban agriculture. Around the world, city dwellers are recognising the important role it plays in their own food security. Add to that the academic and learning programmes stemming from the development of the m¯ara that are opening up career pathways for young people, “and you can see why for health authorities, that’s another way to build healthy communities,” Sandra points out.
Ambitious plans will eventually see the site become a hub that would include not just teaching rooms for outdoor learning, but also a food forest; a rongo¯a garden; a traditional kumara¯ garden; an observatory; a greenhouse and shadehouse; tool sheds, worm bins and compost; and walkways connecting it all.
Meanwhile, the work of the m¯ara never stops, says principal Pete. “We are developing a social enterprise, Maara Fresh, supplying Manurewa High School as our first customer. This includes the School Lunches Programme, the school cafe and staff. The m¯ara is integrated into the school’s w¯ananga programme, which allows students to develop skills in growing kai and in areas that
Student assignments included design for food forest and small gardens. They also researched trees and plants that would suit the area’s climate.
will help them to develop businesses based on kai and natural healing.”
The challenges of the past year, particularly the Covid-19 lockdowns in Auckland, have underlined the value of prioritising local food resilience and nurturing a generation who could do exactly that. In a way, they have already proven their mettle: gardeners could not work in the m¯ara during the nationwide level 4 lockdown last year, so students and volunteers “rescued” the seedlings they had grown, distributing them to the wider community. “When we were allowed back in in level 3, the team planted broccoli, cauli, silverbeet, cabbages… crops that would grow quickly over winter,”
Pete recalls. “That meant that in the next level 3 about two months later, that food was ready to harvest and our team did that, distributing through school food packs and also directly to whanau¯ and through food banks and local groups.”
There is much goodwill and drive to see Te Maara Kai O Wirihana succeed. Rarely has there been such a happy meeting of vision and will, (hopefully) powered by a generation of would-be millennial farmers and growers who already have seen what is at stake.