Maara Kai growing and growing

Pounamu Skelton
Pounamu Skelton

Pounamu Skelton is passionate - there's no doubt about that. And when she talks about growing food in your own garden it's difficult not to share her excitement.

Skelton is the driving force behind Maara Kai, a community garden project which is involved in about 20 vegetable plots throughout the Taranaki, from Patea right up to Waitara.

Although the programme lost its government funding after the then-Labour government's Healthy Eating Healthy Action initiative was laid to rest, Maara Kai is far from over. In fact, it's thriving.

Skelton, who was the nationwide co- ordinator for Maori organic project Te Waka Kai Ora for three years, says that whether there's funding or not, her work still continues.

"My mission is that all Maori are growing some kind of food for themselves. At the end of the day if you can sit down and whatever's on your plate hasn't been bought from the supermarket - that's a good day."

Originally from Waitara, Skelton has travelled the world, growing food wherever she can, and now that she's back home she wants to promote the traditional self- sufficiency that many Maori have forgotten.

"Maori have always grown food," she says. "As we've become more urbanised we're dependent on supermarkets. If I look back on my own family there's a long line of gardeners. Maara Kai is definitely not new, but it's re-discovering and trying to get people to grow food again."

The programme draws its name from Mahinga Kai, which Skelton says means food gathered from all sources including land, sea, river and bush.

"Maara Kai is an offshoot from that and it's more focused on land," says the Te Atiawa and Ngati Ruanui woman.

Skelton initiated Maara Kai, which was run through the Hive Taranaki Environment Centre for six months, after approaching the Taranaki District Health Board for funding.

"I knew there was some funding so I went and applied. I'd been doing this work all around the country but I realised I'd done nothing at home really. I hadn't really been hands on - I was more in a management role and I thought 'gosh, you need to look after your own backyard'."

Despite running out of funding for now, the programme's gardens are still heaving and the benefits of sharing gardening methods are still being felt.

"One of the biggest achievements of Maara Kai is that the younger generation are working with the older generation. The older generation hold the knowledge, the how to, the techniques," says Skelton.

She recalls one of the project's many gardens in South Taranaki, and the experience of one novice gardener.

"In Manaia there was a young woman who didn't really know about gardening, but she worked with her kaumatua and they taught her. I love that bridging between generations. If we don't then we're going to lose all that knowledge and it's gone forever - for me that's satisfying."

Hive Taranaki manager Kama Burwell shares Skelton's passion for sustainability and emphasises the project's main achievements.

"Officially Maara Kai ended in September. The funding from Taranaki District Health Board was for a set contract period but the gardens are still going hard, and that was kind of the point of Pounamu's role, so she could set them up and they keep going regardless of funding."

Burwell has worked at Hive Taranaki, one of 20 environment centres across the country, for the past 10 years and says Maara Kai was the result of engaging the community.

"We had been getting quite a few inquiries from schools, kindergartens, community groups and after school programmes wanting support around growing food," she says. "We didn't have any funding to help them. We knew the health board had funding for similar projects, but their funding was direct."

Burwell says Hive Taranaki suspected the groups receiving the funding could do with ongoing support, rather than just a cash injection.

"What a lot of these groups needed was some support around, expertise in gardening practice. It was just having someone independent to facilitate decision making, someone who's in touch with a lot of different community groups and gardens, and someone who knows what works and what doesn't."

And that's where Skelton came in.

"Because it's Pounamu she brings a special approach around Maori perspectives on growing food. The funding that we got from the TDHB was for Maori communities, so she was a perfect fit for that."

Maara Kai isn't just about starting gardens, although many have been dug. It's also linked with self-improvement and well-being, Skelton says.

"There's nothing like the feeling when you give your food away, there's a lot of mana in that, it's the right thing to do," she says. "It's getting back to that reciprocation and that seems to be what's happening in the gardens I'm involved with. There's so much generosity."

Skelton runs her own two-acre community garden on whanau land near Onaero, and says that more and more Maori are starting to realise the benefits of being self sufficient.

"There's a resurgence of Maori gardening again - the more food prices go up the more people are going to go back to gardening. Consciousness is changing; people are becoming more aware of what's in their food. I think it's wonderful," she says.

Burwell says although Maara Kai has slowed down for now, new funding opportunities are being explored, including an approach to the Soil and Health Association of New Zealand.

And for Skelton, Maara Kai hasn't come to an end - as long as the gardens keep thriving she's happy.

"A garden is only as sustainable as the people who work it, so if you're gardening solo then it's only going to be as good as you. A community garden is a community developing," she says.

And if you're thinking about getting some spuds in your own backyard, then Skelton's advice could come in handy.

"Taranaki is fertile - there's plenty of rain and plenty of sunshine, so there's no excuse not to grow food. Do the work! You can learn and learn and learn but it's not till your hands start working that the magic starts to happen."

Taranaki Daily News