Teaching tamariki about the origins of their food – from garden to table – is well established in schools, but a new approach underpinned by indigenous practices and mātauranga Māori is having a positive impact across learning and wellbeing in several West Auckland schools. 

Over the last three years, ākonga at Westbridge Residential, Don Buck and Lincoln Heights schools have been building a shared Kāhui Kai Māra (gardening community).  More recently Birdwood Primary has joined the collective, with each school adapting the approach to reflect their school culture and how they integrate the garden development and produce through their practices and learning.  

Underpinning the concept of Kāhui Kai Māra are the principles of Mana Motuhake o te Kai, and the Kai Village, with the visioning of these helping to shape this latest holistic gardening and wellbeing focus for the schools.

Key outcomes of the māra kai (food garden) kaupapa include to embed Mana Motuhake o te Kai, to teach tamariki about gardening from seedling to consumption, and to connect schools with wider community to achieve a kai village concept.

The initiative received a boost when it was granted funding through Tū Manawa Active Aotearoa which is driven by the purpose of providing quality opportunities that create a life-long love of being active.  This enabled the employment of a shared kaimahi (teacher resource) across the four schools to facilitate the Kāhui Kai Māra approach, explains Christian Curtis, Community Developer Lead with Sport Waitākere. 

“This was quite revolutionary as no gardening focused kaupapa had previously been recognised under the fund – and it reinforced how kai, cultural connection, physical activity and overall hauora are closely interwoven.”

While gardens in schools are not new, it was quickly realised that the indigenised approach was critical and this has since become the key point of difference. 

“With the support of the kaimahi, it became very evident that we didn’t want this kaupapa to follow a non-indigenised approach like other school gardening programmes had previously.  So that’s when the Mana Motuhake o te Kai aspect of it was brought in and that’s what now underpins it.” 

Developed by Hoani Waititi Mārae, Community Waitākere and Healthy Families Waitākere, Mana Motuhake o te Kai is a tool to authentically engage with Māori whānau and hapū in a culturally appropriate way when working in cultivating, gathering, and sharing kai, explains Healthy Families Waitākere Manager, Mike Tipene. 

“Mana Motuhake is an approach that embraces an ao Māori worldview to guide kai projects and initiatives towards kai security and kai sovereignty. At its core, Mana Motuhake o te Kai utilises mātauranga Māori to revitalise and sustain a kai system that benefits all members of our community,” says Mike

“When we are able to grow, gather, and prepare kai using mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge), we are reviving cultural frameworks and ways of being which have sustained whānau for generations.

For the schools, being able to draw on learnings and principles of Mana Motuhake o te Kai has ensured a strong foundation for the tamariki involved. 

“Across this kaupapa, the focus is on sharing to schools the indigenous knowledge that can be the basis of how we do things authentically.  The intent is to put this valuable knowledge back on the pedestal it deserves,” adds Christian. “At the same time, the initiative is positioning tamariki for ongoing nutritional health and associated wellbeing and the recognised broad hauora benefits of cultural connection. “

Tamariki involved in Kāhui Kai Māra have been vocal about the broad benefits they are enjoying.

“We’ve learnt lots about gardening and that it’s fun and will keep you healthy and happy” and “I like using what I’ve learned at school with my Dad at home,” are just some of the many positive comments from the students.

With the māra kai now well established across the schools, the focus has moved to evaluating the impact, particularly on the tamariki, as well as creating a network of kaimahi who underpin the mahi with the principles of Mana Motuhake o te Kai.   

The commitment to prioritising indigenous practices has now also reached into other parts of the schools – such as guiding a new wellbeing approach at Don Buck Primary. 

“We have recently used the holistic Māori model of wellbeing, Te Whare Tapa Whā, to assess the school’s and whānau understanding of each taha (wellbeing pillar) and how that can be brought to life,” explains Christian.

In particular, the school wanted to assess where their whānau were at in terms of understanding wellbeing, and whether they believed working in the māra was helping the wellbeing of the tamariki.   

“Every year, schools need to undertake a wellbeing survey – and a community and whānau wellbeing survey.  Don Buck Primary has now merged the wellbeing and mara kai sections – recognising the two are intrinsically linked.” 

Looking ahead, the results from the wellbeing survey have provided tangible ideas around broader activities that will link wellbeing and the māra kai, and funding is currently being sought to support these.  This includes after school activities based around the māra kai, including taonga tākaro (Māori games), siva afi (fire dancing), and a cultural kai evening on a Friday – all aimed at creating a sense of belonging through culture which was highlighted as a priority in the survey findings.   

Grounded in te ao Māori and following tikanga, the focus will continue to be on ensuring these cultural practices support each taha, ultimately making sure it’s not an isolated kaupapa just in the māra kai – but universally about making the connections to taha wairua (spiritual health), taha hinengaro (mental health) and taha whānau (family health).