Canterbury-based vegetable grower Luke Sole talks to Michael Reynolds, founder and kaitiaki of Christchurch’s Roimata Food Commons and the co-author of the Aotearoa Food Resilience Charter, about how we can transform our food systems.
Luke Sole: Can you tell me a bit about your role as the founder and kaitiaki of Ōtautahi’s Roimata Food Commons and how this relates to your role as a food resilience advocate?
Michael Reynolds: Roimata Food Commons was a dream that came out of a post-earthquake community project I ran called A Brave New City. There was an overwhelming desire for green spaces to be growing food. I moved to Woolston after that project ended. One day, I walked into Radley Park and was amazed at how much space there was. After a couple of conversations with the Christchurch City Council, our local community board, and a few Sunday afternoon chinwags with locals, we had a project.
Roimata Food Commons is a six-acre communal space where the community can grow and harvest food. It’s home to over 100 heritage fruit and nut trees, which provide the backbone of a developing multi-layered food forest. We’ve started developing an agroecology area, introducing edible fungi, and creating a more communal gathering space with vegetable production in traditional beds and hugelkultur.
Being the kaitiaki is more than just project managing the development of the commons. It’s about educating and strengthening community connections to the space. My goal is to educate and weave knowledge, resilience and wellbeing into the fabric of our local hapori.
Tell me more about the practical application of a ‘food commons’ model. How does it differ from the ways that New Zealanders generally think about obtaining and consuming food?
A food commons, like Roimata Food Commons, sits somewhere between a community garden and a small-scale farm. The commons is a relational way of organising our lives and resources. The simple act of growing kai has always brought people together.
There is no expectation of participating in working bees or the like to obtain access to the produce – we’re there primarily to support our community to access healthy kai.
We take an ecosystem approach to what we are doing. This is where I believe permaculture and the commons overlap. Earth care, people care and fair share are the three foundational ethics of permaculture. At Roimata we have a native regeneration project and use organic principles wherever we can. By making the produce free and offering community gathering events, we are caring for our people.
What are the differences between a project like Roimata Food Commons and more traditional food projects, such as community gardens? There’s something beautifully direct, inclusive and lo-fi about a long-established community garden. They generally aren’t setting out to change the world. Where do you see existing groups and projects fitting into the mix?
Diversity is a key ingredient to how we solve the issues we face. We need diversity of thought, diversity of experience, diversity of people.
We can’t solve issues as large as food insecurity in only one way.
Community gardens are amazing spaces. They take many different forms and adopt many different principles. We have a community garden here in Ōtautahi in New Brighton that blows me away every time I go there. The absolute abundance that the space holds is mind blowing and the depth of generosity and care is humbling. I absolutely cherish community garden spaces.
I guess we are a little different. Roimata Food Commons is in a public space – a council-owned reserve. So we are “open” 24/7. We can’t control how people interact with the space when we aren’t there. I’ve noticed over time that this is slowly leading towards a feeling of community ownership, which is exactly how a food commons should be. We suffer the negative side of that through vandalism, but we also experience the beautiful side of it through guerrilla planting of things like herbs and pumpkins.
It takes time for a space like this to bed in and take root and for the community to feel as though it’s their own.
I feel that backyard gardening has been hijacked in a sense by the middle class. There are several reasons for this, including increased social mobility due largely to housing unaffordability. It’s hard to devote time to gardening when you’re renting, working long hours, or are slogging it out trying to support a family on a limited income. I’ve been there.
I’m interested in ways that we can reduce economic and community barriers that have prevented people from becoming involved in food production. Do you see the commons model fulfilling a community need as an entry point for people who have previously been left out?
Simple reciprocity is a term I use a lot when talking about the commons. We’re a society of givers and receivers. We switch sides of the fence depending on our own circumstances and interactions with others. I like to think of reciprocity as a flow of energy that nourishes and connects people as it moves through and within a community.
I’ve thought a lot about how people negotiate the shame attached with not being able to provide for themselves and their whānau. We live in a society that struggles to value or reward asking for help.
We were careful when creating our model that we didn’t want to impose any barriers to the kai we grow. You don’t need to participate, and you can collect produce whenever you can, want or need.
Our communities are far more abundant than we see. When you start to view your community through a “commons lens” you see more connections and resources than you would have seen before. We so often get caught up in viewing physical objects as resources. When growing food, we look at seedling trays, seeds, seed raising mix and compost. That’s just a few. What if we were to view passion, knowledge, generosity and curiosity as a resource? These are just some of the connecting fibres that exist within a commons community. We could also add leadership and organisation as key connecting fibres too. Without those, we’d all be floating along this journey independently of one another.
Nature doesn’t do separation. Interconnectedness is nature’s point of equilibrium. It’s a big lesson for us to learn.
The Aotearoa Food Resilience Charter is currently in draft form. It’s a collaborative charter being written by Soil & Health Association of NZ Inc in collaboration with a variety of food producers, iwi and food systems activists.
One of the key aims is to foster the creation of generative local food systems. How do we create enduring systems that juggle a commitment to sustainability and the need to provide adequately for our communities?
There’s no doubt that we need to do things a lot differently than we do now, and quick smart. Every country is facing a different set of problems relating to climate change, except for the fact that all problems stem from a prioritisation of profit over the planet.
If we are to look at the symptoms here in Aotearoa, there is no issue around the amount of food we produce. There are several other issues though – such as the conventional ways that we produce and distribute food. Over half of all the goods we export are food related, totalling approximately $47 billion per annum. This creates a scarcity model in our local markets and keeps prices high in relation to average incomes. We are fixated on a supermarket model that has high distribution costs, reduced freshness and a high carbon cost.
Going forward, we need to create food systems that build resilience and accessibility. One of the aspects of the conversation around the charter I’m really interested in is the notion of what a resilient food system should look like. Biodiversity is key, as there’s wider acceptance of the environmental strain that commercial food cropping and herd management practices are creating.
Proximity is becoming more and more important as we look for ways to reduce the carbon cost of food distribution. Nutrient density is also becoming a more widely talked about issue, as we realise the impact that the conventional food system has on the nutrient levels in our food and the health of our people. Relationships are important, there is a growing desire for people to know where their food comes from and who is producing it.
That’s where the Aotearoa Food Resilience Charter comes in. It’s about giving communities a forum to start talking about these things and an invitation to talk about the values and principles that will guide future action.