School project highlights unity of the community
Julia Milne heads up the Common Unity project at Lower Hutt's Epuni School. It's a community-based gardening scheme that uses local knowledge and expertise to improve lives within that community. She says it's time communities stopped relying on outside help, and started working together to look after their own.
There's a need to feed children everywhere. New Zealand has a problem with poverty, and reliable access to good food, and with children going hungry.
That's not something that makes us feel particularly good, and that's not what we wanted to see happen to our children, here in Epuni.
So we did something about it.
We have the most fertile soil in the region; we have families and volunteers with time to donate; we also have one another.
We wanted to feed the children of Epuni school. So, we asked: is it possible for a community to respond to the needs of the local children, and produce and cook food, and provide a lunch system out of that food, together? Of course, we can.
There are around 100 students here, and a lot of space at this school. The idea is that our community can become empowered through feeding one another, without the need for service providing, or trucks of stuff being dropped off.
Our garden is built from 17 different local products, which are all free and available within three kilometres. There's nothing expensive, because the minute we start doing that, we're creating a belief that in order to grow food, you need to have lots of money, forgetting that once upon a time, we used to produce food with no money.
Every Tuesday, all of the children come and work in the garden. We're one of the very few schools in New Zealand to do that. Most schools struggle with getting access to the children because they don't put gardening and food production into the curriculum.
We didn't want to just garden with a select few or have a club. Food production, and feeding ourselves, is a basic skill everyone should know.
Every Wednesday we come together and cook for the children. We call it the Koha Kitchen, where people bring in what it is they have to share.
Our menu starts with what we have in the garden. We've also established a local food network of other people who grow food, or from restaurants, or the local organic shop.
Before you know it, we have this incredible amount of food to work with, and the day is done when it is all turned into meals for our children.
It's a pretty fun space. And it's a lovely question to be asking the community all of the time: what is it that will help you and your children and your family in your life, to do better?
We developed other projects in response to what the community wanted.
We started a knitting workshop for children because some of our children live in quite cold houses. We build beehives to distribute among homes in the community, and produce our own honey. We have a playgroup for our little ones to come to.
It becomes a lovely village-like experience, of everyone mucking in.
Some of our volunteers are parents. We have a lot of people approach us because they want this kind of thing in their own neighbourhood, which is awesome.
We have a lot of mentoring now, of our families here, from people who come in from wider community, who offer skills and different thinking.
It's delightful to watch. Some of our children don't ordinarily have the opportunity to connect with people in their communities. Sometimes, when money is scarce, your experience of community can be quite small.
Poverty and isolation in New Zealand didn't develop overnight, but it only takes one generation to stop passing the knowledge on.
In the generation I come from, there were primary caregivers at home, and communities full of people who held it together.
What happens when everyone becomes busy, when wages are too low, when parents have to go out to work?
We've devalued the act of feeding ourselves and one another, and having a mum or dad, at home, in community. But those are the things which make a difference.
Once upon a time, we wouldn't be having a conversation about feeding children – it's just what we did. We need to remember that all the skills to respond to the children of New Zealand are in our hands.
I love that we have an opportunity to redefine what "rich" really means, because it is not essentially something associated with money or income – it's the richness you get by participating, and by having skills and knowledge in your hands.
My happiest thing is seeing the community and children, well-fed and happy.
I also see endless possibilities. We've fed this school, but what about the other five schools down the road?
One of our visions for Common Unity is to have food available within walking distance for every family in the Hutt Valley.
I think we can do it.