Tagata Pasifika The Pacific voice on New Zealand television since 1987

Whenua Warrior fights food insecurity by teaching Kiwis how to grow food

Kelly Francis has come full circle by choosing South Auckland as the base for her charitable trust, Whenua Warrior, which aims to make food-growing skills and edible gardens accessible to every New Zealander. 

Kelly, who is Ngā Puhi, from Opotiki, grew up in Manurewa.  “I found it really hard to be from South Auckland because of all of the stereotypes,” she says, “and we had parents who wanted to drive us through a career-based life and make education the most important thing.”

After following a career path into corporate tourism, Kelly realised something was missing. “I found myself not really connecting to anything and not being happy day-to-day.” She took stock and made changes to her life, shifting her focus to involvement with Māori culture, learning language, songs and tikanga.

“Living in other places, it just wasn’t a priority for anybody to be learning or teaching it. So coming home after spending a few years in different parts of Auckland helped me to connect and understand my belonging and my purpose for my community.”

This reconnection led to the conception of Whenua Warrior. As Kelly reflected on the relationship her tīpuna had with the whenua, she realised it was a potential solution to the modern problem of food insecurity. She founded Whenua Warrior in 2017 and was immediately met with demand for household and community garden projects. 

In 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Kelly saw South Auckland in particular was impacted, with larger households meaning ‘lines and lines’ of people at supermarkets for a daily shop. 

“We learnt a lot of things over Covid. One of them was that our food systems weren’t as sustainable as we needed them to be.” she says. “We saw a lot of struggle.” 

“We have to start growing food now. We have to build that resilience now. We have to teach our children now. We have to listen to our elderly right now, because the longer we hold this off, the more trouble we’re going to be in a few years.”

Kelly stepped up, secured more funding for Whenua Warrior and launched a campaign to put 600 free garden boxes in South Auckland homes in 2021. 

The social and demographic make-up of South Auckland, as the largest Pacific, Māori and multi-cultural urban centre in Aotearoa, is an advantage, says Kelly. 

“One thing I’ve picked up on actually is that there’s a lot of families who have multiple generations inside the one house. And one of those generations would have gardened at some point in their life, generally the older of the family. And the only thing that we really need to learn is how to be able to use our soils instead of the soils that they’ve grown up in. Really all we’re doing is tweaking the skillset.”

When Tagata Pasifika caught up with Kelly, she was working on a student-led project at Rise Up Academy in Māngere. 

Teacher Rachel Viliamu says the students got a taste of gardening from a strip the caretaker dug up. “(He) planted taro, swan plants, and different types of flowers there. And over the last term, our kids have been able to see caterpillars grow, butterflies flying around, bees. Things that would usually freak them out, we’ve been telling them that they’re good, that we need them, not to destroy them. So with that, they’ve gone, “Miss, we need more of this at school.”

A student project resulted and plans for a school garden with eight planter boxes.  “They will provide vegetables and garden life for our kids to be able to roam around and experience,” says Rachel, “and feed our families.” Rachel called in Whenua Warrior to help bring the plan to life.

The eight planter boxes, which are the same boxes used in the 600 free gardens campaign, will grow 36 food plants.  “We use a mixture of different types of plants,” says Kelly. “So one that’ll go into a boil up pot. We mix it in with a few quick growing plants able to be eaten pretty much straight away. And then we put in hearty plants like silverbeet and cabbages.”

Kelly will deliver the practical side of the project, says Rachel, and perhaps more importantly, Whenua Warrior’s cultural philosophy will help the students connect with the whenua and the purpose and skills involved with growing food. 

For Kelly, it’s her favourite part of the job.  “Seeing them all with dirt under their fingernails and understanding that they have a purpose to come to school and water those plants… It makes me feel really good, to give them that connective feeling.”

There are free garden boxes still available for people who live in South Auckland. People who live elsewhere are not out of luck, however. Kelly plans to extend the campaign. 

“When you look at a framework in Ao Maori, you try to start with self first, then your whānau, then your hapū, which is your way to community, then your iwi, which is your entire city. So after South Auckland, yes, we are going to do the rest of it, then after that, the rest of the country.”

By Simone Kaho

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