Māra Kai: Māori kai?

Pita Sharples’ Māra Kai Māori gardening initiative is a little jewel of sustainability policy, which could benefit all of us

Dr Sharples is a patient man; nonetheless, this must exasperate him. Every time he tries to do something to give a hand up to his people, white folks start yammering about wanting a piece of it.

On 9 October, Minister of Māori Affairs Sharples publicly launched his Māra Kai (“food from the ground”) funding programme. Sharples has directed Te Puni Kōkiri to set aside half a million dollars to encourage Māori to develop gardens to grow food. The money will fund their capital set-up costs, and the co-ordination of centralised support.

Briefing papers describe the types of costs the fund could meet: construction of garden beds, compost bins, and tool sheds; purchasing garden tools and seeds; education on gardening practices; and provision of services to help establish gardens. Any Māori group or organisation may apply. Projects must benefit a local Māori community. The papers express these aspirations for Māra Kai:

  • A way for Māori communities to feed themselves, and promote self sufficiency.
  • A way of improving Māori health, through better nutrition and fitness.
  • A useful way to develop private or community land.
  • An opportunity to grow kai the Māori way and know how to do that, which will help preserve and protect Māori kai.
  • An educational opportunity to gain horticultural skills.

After Sharples’ announcement, Tim Watkin blogged about the illogic of abolishing Enviroschools funding, yet funding Māra Kai. The briefing papers confirm the similarities between the two concepts. For example, one paper says:

A school garden at Ilminster Intermediate School at Kaiti, Gisborne, has become the focus of excitement for the pupils. The excitement is spreading through the community as the children take their fresh vegetables home … The garden has become a focus of learning about horticulture, nutrition, food preparation and cooking. The project has created the impetus for science projects and a weather station has been set up to help study the effect of weather on soil and plant growth.

It also notes the importance of having a central co-ordinating individual or body to promote gardening, educate and demonstrate to groups interested in gardening, facilitate on behalf of groups (for example, for gardening space with local councils), and provide advice, support and resources. All this is very like Enviroschools -- which isn’t mentioned, although it seems likely that this was the basis of the Ilminster School initiative.

However, indirectly, the papers do explain the incoherence. It comes down to the fact that the Māra Kai proposal has not been to Cabinet. This is a personal enthusiasm of the Minister, carved out from his department’s own funding. Whether or not he was in sync with Education Minister Anne Tolley probably was not on his mind.

Furthermore, the Māori Party has since grasped the connections, and joined up their thinking on this issue. One scarcely reported aspect of the emissions trading scheme concessions is a temporary reprieve for Enviroschools: the government, which had planned to cut funding from the end of the year, has agreed that the Ministry for the Environment and Te Puni Kōkiri will jointly fund it from 1 January 2010 for a further six months to enable a review.

That helps, a bit, to disperse the whiff of the mindset of some other aspects of the Māori Party’s approach to the emissions trading scheme. However, the benefits identified for Māra Kai are benefits that we would all enjoy, and might all need. Low income communities country-wide could use a hand to get themselves started. Without wishing to diminish the importance of preserving Māori cultural heritage, other kinds of heirloom vegetables and gardening techniques have a lore, and are worth preserving too. Not all lettuces were created equal, and God loves some potatoes more than others.

Enviroschools is a more amorphous concept than Māra Kai. It is the umbrella beneath which many schools have established food gardens and used them as a gateway into teaching other skills, and perhaps the gardens are the most tangible, best-loved aspect of the programme. But its focus is sustainability more generally.

Māra Kai is undoubtedly part of a wider sustainability picture. Because it contributes to social and physical health, it also has some links, for example, with the Ministry of Health’s “healthy eating healthy action” programme (an obesity-focused programme). But it warrants the dignity of separate policy attention, which Sharples is giving it.

Another parallel strand of thought is the Green Party’s “greening the food basket” policy. That talks in high level manifesto-type terms about supporting and funding local food economies by way of farmers markets, community gardens, community supported agriculture, heritage seed banks and fruit tree distribution; and establishing a “Food Commission” to develop and oversee food policies, with objectives like food security, and reducing food’s carbon footprint.

One of the problems dogging this kind of policy is that, because it doesn’t fit tidily into any one existing portfolio, it will tend to fall between the cracks; alternatively, as illustrated, there will be untidy duplication. A cheaper method than a Food Commission may be simply to establish a Ministerial champion, by creating a portfolio (as any government is free to do). Bureaucrats would have to nut out between affected departments how to resource it, but that’s not unprecedented. The important point is the co-ordination and leadership.

I was a bit sad to see that even the Greens’ food policy is only a germ -- in the seedling sense, of course. As a policy developer, there’s so much more you could do with it.

You could start by measuring the capacity of urban environments to provide food, for example: how many Aucklanders or Wellingtonians could be fed within the boundaries of those cities? You might do a stock take to find out what community gardening exists already, what are the obstacles to urban food production, and ways around those obstacles. You could explore ideas like the English duty on local authorities to provide public land for allotments -- does it work, and is it needed in quarter-acre paradise New Zealand? -- and “guerrilla gardening” movements that plant food, fruit trees, and so on in public space. You could use your imagination, and really have some fun.

It’d be a popular policy. There are lots of parallels with the Warm Up New Zealand home insulation scheme, like quick tangible cost-benefit, a broad-based social policy, and job creation in the establishment phase. Perhaps it’s the kind of work some prisoners could do, that would be good for their communities, and a real source of pride and self esteem.

For now, perhaps, “Māra Kai” means “Māori kai”, but it is a little jewel of sustainability policy that deserves a positive post. It’s smart to harness Sharples’ mana and the government’s debt of gratitude to the Māori Party to get it off the ground. It needs that sort of ownership. One day, when somebody gets around to writing a proper comprehensive policy, they’ll be tilling more fertile ground.