Angela Clifford of Eat New Zealand, Manaia Cunningham, Jessica Hutchings, Te Rangikaheke Kiripatea and Jo Smith at the Food Hui (Photo: Supplied)

How Māori kai producers are decolonising the New Zealand food story

Māori food systems are rich with potential, and whānau-based food producers across the country are looking to traditional ways to ensure their communities thrive in the future. Alice Neville reports from the Eat New Zealand Food Hui.

In recent years there has been much talk – in food business, hospitality, tourism and food media circles at least – about “telling the New Zealand food story”.

A couple of years ago, Dr Jessica Hutchings was listening to an interview on RNZ with former Labour MP and Massey University vice-chancellor Steve Maharey, who has spoken much on the topic. While she enjoyed the interview, in which Maharey spoke about New Zealand’s need to transition from being a farming nation to a food nation, “I could have been anywhere in the world,” said Hutchings. “There was no reference to indigeneity, there was no reference to mana whenua. And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Where is the missing Māori contribution within the New Zealand food story?’”

Hutchings was speaking as part of a panel discussion on Māori food systems at Eat New Zealand’s Food Hui held in Auckland last week. After listening to that Maharey interview, Hutchings (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Huirapa, Gujarati), a kaupapa Māori researcher, activist and hua parakore grower, put together a proposal with fellow researcher Dr Jo Smith (Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe, Kāi Tahu) to apply for funding through AgResearch’s Our Land and Water National Science Challenge.

“We wanted to make an intervention into this New Zealand food story discourse that was happening, we wanted to story-tell from a kaupapa Māori perspective our own pūrākau, our own stories and our own indigenous narratives around what kaitiakitanga might mean if we’re thinking about it from a Māori land and water food systems perspective,” she explained.

Jessica Hutchings speaks on the panel with Te Rangikaheke Kiripatea and Manaia Cunningham (Photo: Supplied)

The funding (nearly $250,000) was awarded and Hutchings and Smith spent 15 months working with a diverse group of Māori food producers. At the hui, Hutchings said it was a conscious decision to work not just with agribusinesses, which is where the project organisers wanted to drive them, with the hope of increasing productivity and export potential. “But the innovation is happening at other levels within our Māori food systems. Some of the Māori agribusinesses in Ngāi Tahu, where we’re from, don’t look any different from conventional Pākehā farming.”

Hutchings also emphasised the need to contextualise the Māori food story within the wider political landscape, namely that Ihumātao, the site of Aotearoa’s earliest food gardens, is still in occupation. She also highlighted the importance of Wai 262, the claim on Māori intellectual and cultural property rights. The 2011 Waitangi Tribunal report on the claim recommended wide-ranging reforms to laws and policies affecting Māori culture and identity. She issued a wero to the mainly Pākehā attendees of the hui – to understand that Māori culture is not there for the taking. 

“Matauranga Māori is a complete intact indigenous knowledge system. It’s not floating around to be picked out – ‘oh I’ll take manaaki, I’ll take a bit of Matariki because I understand that, oh I know what whanaungatanga means so I’ll take that’. It has to weave a relation to everything else.”

The resulting research project, which was completed in July this year, is called Storying Kaitiakitanga and profiles different Māori food producers ranging from beekeepers and kiwifruit growers to yoghurt makers and kiwifruit growers, a kōura farm and a clean “kai co-op”.

‘Our food system is fucked’ – Te Rangikaheke Kiripatea of Kai Rotorua addresses the Food Hui (Photo: Supplied)

Joining Hutchings and Smith on the panel at the hui were two producers who shared their stories with the project, Manaia Cunningham and Te Rangikaheke Kiripatea.

Kiripatea (Te Arawa, Rongomaiwahine ki Kahungunu), leads Kai Rotorua, a non-profit volunteer organisation that teaches people to grow, harvest and store kūmara, rīwai (potatoes) and other vegetables. He told the hui the project was about “reconnecting us to Papatūānuku through kai”, and spoke of how the project works by the maramataka

“Why are we doing this?” asked Kiripatea. “Well, I was going to say because our food system is fucked, but then I thought, ‘ooh no, I might be in the wrong company, I better not say that’. So I won’t, but you know what I mean,” he quipped. Kai Rotorua works with several schools in the area and has plans to launch a food hub comprising a seed bank, cafe, kūmara bank, garden and spaces for education, food storage and distribution.

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‘It’s about being with Tangaroa and Papatūānuku’ – Manaia Cunningham of Koukourārata (Photo: Supplied) 

Cunningham (Ngāti Irakehu, Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Mutunga), leads a marae-based market gardens programme at Koukourārata on Te Pātaka o Rākaihautū (Banks Peninsula). The māra (gardens) at Koukourārata grow taonga potato species organically, which feed the community as well as being sold at local markets, proceeds from which are reinvested into health and education outcomes for the community. In collaboration with the Department of Corrections, the gardens provide work for people serving community-based sentences.

Cunningham spoke of how his mahinga kai journey began as a young boy with his Ngāpuhi Aunty Pauline, who lived in his village at Koukourārata. “She loved gin, smoked plenty and boy could she swear, but she loved us kids and she’d take us around the marae to harvest kūtai or pāua. My very first lesson was this – when we’re harvesting kaimoana, we don’t swear. When our kids go gathering, they’re well-behaved. When we’re harvesting food, we don’t yell and scream around the water’s edge. We do it quietly, collectively – there’s a bit of humour, a bit of banter, but it’s about being with Tangaroa and Papatūānuku.

“With pāua, with kūtai, at times you have to lift up the rock to gather – Aunty would say just put the rock back how you found it and let the pāpaka, the crabs, let the ecology under that rock live. It was her way of teaching that mauri, that interconnectedness – we need every part of that coastline to be as we found it.”


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