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(Illustration: Tina Tiller)
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PartnersDecember 1, 2020

Doughnuts and dandelions: Reimagining our food system post Covid-19

(Illustration: Tina Tiller)
(Illustration: Tina Tiller)

The pandemic has given us the chance to build a more secure, sustainable, resilient food system – one that is healthier and supports people more fairly. This is the second essay in a new series examining the effects of Covid-19 on New Zealand, in partnership with Te Pūnaha Matatini.

Wednesday is hāngī day at the Papatoetoe Food Hub. People come from across Auckland to collect authentic hāngī, cooked in the ground. For the same cost as hitting the drive-through, you can eat delicious, nutritious food prepared in the community – and your money is going to stay there. But this vital community food source was suddenly cut off in March 2020 when the country went into lockdown.

The restrictions imposed to manage Covid-19 laid bare existing vulnerabilities in Aotearoa’s food system. Many people were suddenly unable to access or afford food. This reveals both the economic and social risks of concentrating power and money into just a few large food companies, and the reliance on global supply chains for key goods.

New Zealand’s current food system focuses on yield and profit. Large farms are interconnected with wholesalers, distributors, brokers and marketers, and directed by two dominant supermarkets and their global partners.

Before the pandemic, by conventional economic metrics, this system was in an encouraging position. In mid-2019 the Situation Outlook for Primary Industries report showed booming exports for the second year in a row, with dairy and meat forecast to increase 5.7% and 6.4% respectively on 2018 export revenue, and horticulture an impressive 13.7%.

But this mirage of security evaporated with the Covid-19 pandemic. We know that more shocks and crises are coming. We have the chance to build a more secure, sustainable, resilient food system – one that is healthier and supports people more fairly.

Growing an environmentally clean, socially inclusive food economy is not just aspirational – it’s within our grasp. Even better, we already have the knowledge and tools to help us do this.

Community organisations have been dealing with the consequences of inequity and the inadequacies in our food systems for decades. They have worked in challenging circumstances to make changes to local food systems. This work has generated a huge amount of local knowledge and laid the foundations on which we can build back a food system better than what existed pre-Covid-19.

The Papatoetoe Food Hub (Image: supplied)


Kate Raworth is here to help, with her concept of Doughnut Economics. In opposition to the 20th-century economic orthodoxy of perpetual growth, Raworth argues for a 21st-century economy that thrives, rather than grows.

She visualises this approach with two concentric radar charts depicting human wellbeing encompassed within two boundaries: social and ecological. Picture it as a doughnut, with the minimum social standards as the inner ring, and the ecological limits of the planet as the outer ring.

In between those two limits is where humans can thrive, and where everyone has what they need: from safe water and healthy food to political voice, peace and justice.

This concept reminds us we are deeply interconnected, both with each other and with the physical and living worlds in which we exist. We need to find a balance that prevents communities and families from falling into the doughnut hole where human rights are limited and unequal, and simultaneously avoid overreaching the Earth’s ecological limits.

We neglect the natural environment through conventional economics including orthodox short-term accounting practices. The Environment Aotearoa 2019 report tolled alarming farming-related soil and water quality degradation, biodiversity loss, marine overharvesting effects and climate change contributions from food production.

We know that this environmental damage will, in turn, have severe long-term consequences for wellbeing in Aotearoa. But our health is already affected by the types of food available for us to eat. We have one of the highest rates of obesity in the world a risk factor for many health conditions.

And the causes of obesity are distributed unequally, with some communities drenched in high numbers of fast-food outlets and ubiquitous marketing of unhealthy products. At the same time, these communities lack access to affordable fresh fruit and vegetables, with not enough money for kids’ breakfasts or lunches, limited green spaces and poor urban design that fails to encourage exercise.

Rather than measuring our food sector through its contribution to GDP, maybe we should be asking how it enables equitable living standards, supports a right to thrive, and contributes to social solidarity and vibrant individuals and communities.

By imaginatively rebuilding food production, distribution and consumption in Aotearoa after Covid-19 we can create greater food security in uncertain times, as well as re-establish flourishing lives – and livelihoods.

Where we can start from

Kate Raworth recently downscaled the Doughnut to the level of the city. She combined local aspiration to be thriving people in a thriving place – with a global responsibility to live in ways that respect all people and the whole planet.

Sustainable food systems play a huge role in achieving both these goals. They give us access to affordable, nourishing, nutrient dense, sustainable and locally produced food. They also support farming operations, big and small.

They move us from the conventional, globalised model of productivist food systems to one that embraces connections with households, marae, community gardens, schools, small food outlets, markets, smallholder farms and local organisations, as well as the nearby natural environment.

Sustainable food systems are already happening, and they contribute significantly to food production. A 2010 study showed that 67 community gardens in New York with 1.7 acres in production yielded about 87,690 pounds (approximately US$214,060) of food. A similar study conducted in Philadelphia indicated US$4.9 million worth of food was produced over the 2008 summer.

Food from the gardens being boxed up to be distributed to the community (Photo: Billy Wong)

Many local communities in Aotearoa have also begun this transition. Healthy Families South Auckland, an initiative run by The Cause Collective and The Southern Initiative, was reimagining more resilient food systems in South Auckland long before Covid-19 was a household name.

Together, they have a common goal that all South Aucklanders enjoy good health and wellbeing, enabled by cultural, social and physical environments.

They helped to co-design a vibrant community-run garden in a Sikh temple in Takanini and piloted a community garden on disused land at Al-Madinah School in Māngere.

The Sikh Temple Gurdwara Sri Kalgidhar Sahib feeds thousands of people in South Auckland for free every week. Produce is grown in its gardens – planted and harvested by volunteers, students and community service workers.

The Southern Initiative and Healthy Families South Auckland also developed the Good Food Roadmap, an action plan for a sustainable food system that applies doughnut economics to South Auckland.

“The Good Food Roadmap is a framework for people who already know that they want to work in this space,” says Julio Bin from The Southern Initiative and Healthy Families South Auckland. “It’s a unifying message with a kind of a strategic aim.”

The five steps of the Good Food Roadmap are:

  1. Access to nourishing food
  2. Self-determining and mana-enhancing participation in the food system
  3. Reflecting our local cultural diversity in our food system
  4. The best food choice as the easiest food choice
  5. Resilience in our food system around waste, surplus and production

Sharing goals means that anyone can adopt the Good Food Roadmap in their work while contributing to the wider food system.

This is exactly what Healthy Families South Auckland achieves by supporting the community-operated Papatoetoe Food Hub.

The gardens in action (Photo: Billy Wong)

Papatoetoe Food Hub

The Papatoetoe Food Hub serves fresh, locally produced food at different prices to accommodate different financial circumstances.

Like other community food organisers, the Papatoetoe Food Hub found that Covid-19 created the conditions to pause and reflect. They were forced to make decisions which transformed their supply of food to the community in positive ways.

When Covid-19 hit, everything had to stop and they had a month to think. “I think it was very valuable,” says Bin. “We restructured the whole menu, the whole place, for pickup and delivery. And that was going to be, like, phase three of the project and suddenly became phase one.”

Their community changed too. Bin says that pre-Covid-19, “it was going really well and suddenly poof, zero.” When the Food Hub started up again after lockdown, they had their busiest month ever. “July was just, like, a triple of all the previous sales,” says Bin. “I think the relationship with food changed. People were relating to the food hub in a different way. It’s really coming from the heart – a little bit of kindness in every transaction.”

“Farmers from Pukekohe brought up a tonne of vegetables like carrots, onions, and pumpkins that they couldn’t sell because of lockdown. They peeled it all and they turned it into soup for the local schools and libraries. They did that to give back to the community, because they had all this produce that was going to go to waste. It’s built up real good spirit in the community. And I think that’s probably meant a lot in terms of people wanting to go there. People had more time, and sales increased because people are buying local.”

The infrastructure available through the Papatoetoe Food Hub’s public-private-community partnership encourages people to work equitably with iwi, community, businesses and public organisations to create connections and lower barriers.

“We’re using under-utilised council space that was earmarked for development,” explains Bin. “It’s one of hundreds of properties that council own – it was just there. The business model was all about lowering the overhead costs, like lease and power and things like that, to lower the cost of food.”

“If you go there, you won’t see any logo or anything related to council. It’s about locals owning the whole kaupapa and actually taking it further. It is working right now so we know there is a model that’s replicable and we can do that in other places.”

This exemplifies the sort of collective, collaborative, insight-gathering approach to improving community wellbeing that holds much promise for rebuilding Aotearoa in the wake of Covid-19.

It was important to have low start-up costs for the Food Hub to be sustainable. “From the coffee machine to the tables and chairs, everything is upcycled,” says Bin. “Just to prove the concept that you can actually start with a minimum investment. There’s so much resource out there, you know, you just need to find the right people, the right connections, and ask for support.”

Learning about the way things were (Photo: Billy Wong)

Bin says that the Papatoetoe Food Hub is now an example for others. “We’re having more and more visitors coming to get inspiration: What are the policies? What are the roadblocks? Why don’t we have more spaces like this? Why is it so difficult?”

The Hub hasn’t stopped innovating. There are plans for educational workshops, more resources for composting and food growing on site, and intentions to bring back umu, just for starters.

The Southern Initiative is also supporting Māori and Pacific enterprises in government and corporate supply chains. This sort of social procurement is a profound and controllable lever for local development.  

Its importance has been picked up by the Sustainable Business Network, who created a resource that explains how an organisation can directly and deliberately address both its own and wider society’s social challenges through its procurement. The report identifies that change starts with buyers and senior leadership.

The Southern Initiative launched He Waka Eke Noa (now Amotai) in 2017 to connect Māori- and Pacific-owned businesses with buyers wanting to purchase goods, services and works. The name comes from the well-known whakataukī, which translates as “we are all in the canoe, without exception” acting as a collective, working in unity and leaving no one behind. 

The hub directors are of Māori, Cook Island and South Asian origin. This reflects Papatoetoe demographics and informs the culturally diverse offering on the menu, which has included hāngī, umu and boil-up.

Bin agrees the hub has become a viable alternative to McDonald’s. “It’s having the option of choosing what you want to eat. For the same money they’re going to spend to have bad food, they can have good food, which is made by the community, and the money is going to stay there. And it’s going to generate social good as well.”

Papatoetoe Food Hub rescues 500kg of food headed for disposal each week, mostly from the supermarket 100m down the road. Seventy percent of their dishes are created with upcycled food. On-site composting diverts 100kg of food from landfill each week. That waste feeds into the planter boxes on site, to generate more veggies for the kitchen and experiential learning opportunities for schools.

“The idea is to further develop social enterprises and community networks and opportunities,” says Bin. “Employing someone to look after the compost, being able to put some science into this, to understand the value of soil, get kids involved, it’s all about connecting people back to it.”

Papatoetoe Food Hub’s principles reflect doughnut economics. Bin explains how they operate on the principle of food that’s “good for the pocket, good for the puku, good for the planet”.

“Food is a catalyst for systemic change – it’s not just for conventional notions of ‘health’, but also mental health, environmental purposes, the local economy. We’re using the simplicity of the food message, for the complexity of outcomes.”

Wormy compost helps build healthy ecosystems (Photo: Billy Wong)

Permaculture and regenerative agriculture: Dandelions

In talking with Alice McSherry at the Auckland Permaculture Trust, it’s clear that what we call a “weed” is subjective. When she explains the permaculture principle of using edges and valuing the marginal, she talks about dandelions in particular: “they are nutrient-dense ‘weeds’, a high source of vitamin C, and in the same family as pūhā, would you believe? Medicinal plants are found at the edges.”

Permaculture and regenerative farming operate on the principles of keeping healthy biodiversity, high water quality and carbon sinking in play, while regenerating quality productive soils. It holds much promise, provided it is not thought of as a cookie-cutter solution to manage all environmental quality issues in New Zealand farming, but is used in a bespoke way for particular soils, climates and cultural contexts.

The Auckland Permaculture Trust runs the Auckland Permaculture Workshop, a year-long course that includes putting the principles of ‘fertile gardening’ into practice. McSherry explains “you learn through the process of doing. By acting, and not just thinking, we’ve deepened our engagement with the whole system”.

Community gardening at her local Piritahi Marae on Waiheke Island demonstrated how fragile our food system really is. She describes how pre-Covid-19, the marae garden was a space that had its own limitations ­– mostly the money to buy seedlings, and the time for active stewardship.

Covid-19 created its own disruptions, but it also galvanised people. It felt like a call to action in the gardening community. “Not to romanticise this, but even for people who knew this stuff, it became more important. Life changed. What better time than now to get our hands in the dirt?”

The Piritahi Marae māra kai reinforces community connection: through a rangatahi support programme for education and kitchen literacy, the intergenerational conversations while working in the garden, mutual support for other members’ social enterprises, and also the support for health and wellness, and having a say – and a hand – in how your food is produced.

Weeds of sustenance? (Photo: Billy Wong)

Community food production

Numerous community gardens around the country showed the benefits of agility and dynamism in small-scale organisations when they changed their operations in response to Covid-19. They got food to communities by innovating online ordering for vegetable box deliveries, online farmers markets and the nationwide Open Food Network.

While the learning curve was steep for some, and administration a challenge, the community benefits were indisputable. Community gardens have been reconfigured not just as producers of food, but as educators ­– re-establishing lost skills around (often urban) food production.   

Andy Boor, a coordinator at Kelmarna Gardens, an established city farm and organic community garden in Auckland, says, “For a lot of people it was a wake-up call, to realise that the food system that we have is not particularly resilient, is not necessarily that interested in what they actually need – and for most people in New Zealand it was the first time in their lives that there has ever been the threat of shortages.”

Their community showed a “post-Covid demand to learn the skills for growing their own food”. The gardens have been able to meet this need by running weekend gardening workshops, which have sold out twice as quickly as before.  There are more people around now who are out of work, which makes the opportunity to gain food-growing knowledge all the more appealing.

“We’re building networks with other small local growers as well. And it’s a way for us to reach people that wouldn’t necessarily find this place on their own,” Boor says.

This sort of local empowerment, with practical knowledge about self-provisioning, might step us away from the hole in the doughnut. But we need to consider who has the time, resources and privilege to be able to participate. A fairer food system would mean that we all could.

Andy Boor at Kelmarna Gardens (Photo: Billy Wong)

How we can get there

The everyday, diverse, small-scale supply of food meets urgent local needs, but we also need to create greater efficiency and resilience. Reorienting our investment into local production, distribution and consumption is a no-brainer. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced countries to implement responses that have undermined food supply chains. Closed borders, missing migrant workers, limited overland, sea and air transport and mandated social distancing have often hampered trade of agricultural goods, food and food-related goods.

Although our government has outlined their optimism for economic buoyancy, this seems an unlikely prospect. The significant debt incurred by the restrictions we undertook to combat Covid-19, compounded with the large government stimulus packages delivered throughout 2020, presents economic challenges.

Those who experienced the hardship of previous recessions are understandably panicked at the potential of Covid-19’s economic fallout. Yet the pandemic is also serving as an opportunity to recognise that our national food system is not fit for purpose.

The optimum food system would achieve environmental, social and economic benefits through farming and food production, distribution and consumption, and would cause no degradation.

Turning the garden into community health (Photo: Billy Wong)

The Covid-19 crisis offers an opportunity to think long term ­– and disruptively. Different ways of working do not emerge fully formed. They are embarked upon through the co-development of ideas and practices, as experiments carried out by and within the communities who are invested in them.

For some food producers, there is a feeling that we are faced with an opportunity to re-evaluate procurement options and rethink what is actually of value to New Zealanders.

But for those farms and producers whose businesses need immediate relief, financial security is the urgent, primary motive and doing something different feels like a huge stretch of mental and physical energy.

While our companies and successive governments have historically subsidised or directly funded a chemical-intensive, monoculture or animal-intensive system of food production, we now have an opportunity to redirect those funds in a different way. Co-governance plays a vital part in enabling such a transition alongside significant financial or other incentives.

New Zealand’s recovery for its food systems should maximise opportunities for Te Tiriti partnership in and among public, private, and community settings – to think about how we “build back better” – creating a national food system and future where people can live regeneratively off the land and sea.

We need to resist the temptation to settle for easy answers that lack ambition or creativity, or that threaten to reactivate a suspended “old normal”. We can learn from what has happened and find the sweetspot in the doughnut where all people have the opportunity to thrive, without offloading the costs of the crisis onto the poorest and devastating the environment as we go.

The primary authors of this story are:

Emma Sharp is a lecturer in Te Kura Mātai Taiao, the School of Environment at the University of Auckland. Her research connects aspects of urban and rural food production and consumption with alternative economies.

Anna Matheson is a senior lecturer in health policy at Te Herenga Waka, Victoria University of Wellington. Anna has a background in public health and equity and is interested in effective ways to achieve better community health and wellbeing.

Jonathan Burgess is a senior communications and media adviser at Te Pūnaha Matatini.

Additional contributions were made by:

Alice McSherry serves as the secretary of the Auckland Permaculture Trust and is an active member of the Piritahi Marae māra kai on Waiheke Island.

Julio Bin is the lead for systems innovation with The Southern Initiative and Healthy Families South Auckland.

Andy Boor is the engagement and development manager at Kelmarna Gardens in Auckland.

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