Michelle Blau, Fair Food general manager, and Oscar Kightley in the packing depot (Photo: Auckland Council)
Michelle Blau, Fair Food general manager, and Oscar Kightley in the packing depot (Photo: Auckland Council)

PartnersJune 25, 2024

Feeding whānau, fighting pests: meet three groups making change in Auckland

Michelle Blau, Fair Food general manager, and Oscar Kightley in the packing depot (Photo: Auckland Council)
Michelle Blau, Fair Food general manager, and Oscar Kightley in the packing depot (Photo: Auckland Council)

Three community groups in Tāmaki Makaurau are creating positive change and with the help of Auckland Council’s Local Board grants. Sarah Daniell stopped by to see what community mahi looks like in three very different niches.

It’s Saturday morning at Avondale’s Fair Food depot, and Tracey points to three massive sacks of fresh bread, buns and rolls at the entrance of the warehouse. “That’s Jon Bun Jovi, there’s Fat Bready’s Drop and over there – Bready Mercury.” Humour, like the food here, isn’t scarce. 

Tracey is head of operations at Fair Food, where waste is transformed, with aroha, into meals. Since 2021, Fair Food has rescued close to two million kilos of perfectly good food headed for landfill. With that food they’ve distributed over five million meals and kept over 5,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere. These numbers, says Fair Food general manager and proud Westie Michelle Blau, are just the tip of the iceberg. 

“We are a growth industry – but that’s not something to be proud of,” says Blau. “We do not want to be here at all. We are not trying to get a market share of hunger. That is not anyone’s goal.”

Food waste accounts for 25% of landfill emissions in Auckland. From January to May this year, Fair Food has distributed 245,000kg of kai to those in need and 29,285kg to farmers for animal feed. Each week, the organisation saves 31 tonnes of emissions.

“This year we’ve only sent 681 kg to landfill. So we’re 99.7% waste free,” says Blau.  

Even though the numbers are an indictment of our food system, says Blau, they’re also an incredible example of what’s possible. On the cutting room floor, volunteers are sorting a mountain of produce into three categories: fit to eat, fit to cook, fit to compost. All of it – fresh, frozen, dry – is distributed with thought and care. “We don’t want anyone to get something that diminishes their mana.” 

Kai getting prepared and packed at Fair Food (Photo: Auckland Council)

Kim and Losi are slicing and juicing fresh limes. “G” the driver is sorting and loading frozen meat. Later that day, a group of kids from a local school will help prepare cooked meals to be delivered to Avondale which will feed 100 people. 

“Last year,” says Blau, “we did enough food to give a week’s worth of meals to 81,500 people so I feel like I know what I’m talking about when I say you can’t budget your way out of poverty. It is related to resources available.” 

While Fair Food runs on the aroha and mahi of volunteers, Local Board grants have been a game changer, says Blau. In Fair Food’s case, the three West Auckland boards, Whau, Waitākere Ranges and Henderson-Massey, came together to provide support. 

“This grant allows us to do a lot of things we couldn’t otherwise get or do. To get our tables all at the same height, so it’s a more safe and ergonomic experience – we were finding that for some of the older volunteers, the scales being different heights was creating unsafe lifting practice.” These grants also helped Fair Food buy more non-slip mats, sorting tubs and other tools that make their important mahi easier and safer to do.

Kai brings people together, says Blau. “So to have this beacon of food, and to see all the great friendships, food and fun that comes out of that, is a huge privilege. If your cup isn’t full here it’s got a pretty big hole in it.” 

Fair Food head chef Adele at right works in a busy kitchen and a volunteer to her left assists. They are making a stuffed tomato dish.
A volunteer (at left) works alongside Fair Food head chef, Adele Duncan (Photo: Auckland Council)

Row Robinson is another local board grant recipient. In the war on pest control, Robinson’s backyard is ground zero. The tireless crusader, fighting a relentless army of rats, mice, possums, ferrets and hedgehogs takes me on our virtual tour around his property Wattle Downs. 

“When I first moved here 15 years ago, there were no birds. No sparrows or anything. I thought, there must be a huge number of pests. So with my poisoning and trapping I noticed we started to get birds back in the area.” 

Robinson is largely self-funded and uses a variety of methods including poison bait, pheromone traps, gas traps and his own invention: floating rafts for mangroves and waterways, built with the Manurewa Local Board grant.

His property backs on to a golf course. “I said, ‘Hey we’ve got rats everywhere’. So I put 20 traps on the golf course, and I thought, ‘if there’s rats on the golf course, there’s gonna be rats in the reserves’.” 

Row Robinson crouches down at the base of a tī kouka tree to set a black trap for catching rats, he has white hair and is swearing a blue work jumpsuit.
Row Robinson setting traps (Photo: Auckland Council)

From the backyard, to the golf course and to the Wattle Downs peninsula. Nature should flourish here. But the prevalence of predators and scant native trees means the birdlife, and other native species such as wading birds, lizards, geckos and snails have been, in some cases, close to vanishing. 

“The walkway around our peninsula is about 8 km long. We’d check the traps once a week and the baits had all been eaten so we knew wow, there are actually rats here. I carried on trapping but it got a bit much for me so I started getting volunteers and now I’ve got 10.”

A group of rats is called a “mischief” – an understatement based on the profound impact of their breeding cycle. Female rats can breed at just six weeks old and litters average 10. “My calculation is that for one female there’s 1,856 babies born in one year. So it just gets really out of control,” Robinson says.

How does Robinson measure his success? “Birds. The birds came back – we started seeing sparrows, the little silvereyes, and fantails and I thought that’s wonderful. Tūī turned up about 12 years ago.” 

Twice a year, close to the shortest day and longest day, Robinson heads to the peninsula to observe and count the birds. Recently, he spotted black back seagulls, which are in decline. “We have a colony of about 45 which is getting bigger and we’ve got red billed gulls and pied stilts. I didn’t know what these birds were but with a little bit of research and study I can recognise their calls now.” 

The next plan is to plant 100 native trees that will last 100 to 1,000 years. “The plants and shrubs we have planted at Wattle Downs are only expected to live for 35-40 years. The plan will take decades to implement, but we’ve started.” 

Robinson is one person making a difference, from his backyard. “It’s just something I do. I do it for nature. It’s the right thing to do. That’s what you do.”

The final stop on my tour is all about paying it back with play. That’s the mission at the heart of a small community group that provides essential tools for keeping kids healthy, active and engaged in Auckland’s eastern suburbs. Nikki Badger, a committee member of the Eastern Bays Toy Library, in the Glendowie Community Centre, has a personal connection to the organisation that provides the hardware and the support for caregivers and parents. 

“I’ve been part of the library since my oldest son – who’s now 10 – was 15 months old,” says Badger, “So it’s been amazing for us and I can speak for the community, in terms of the money it saves. It’s fantastic – some of these bigger toys can cost hundreds of dollars. Compare that to the annual membership fee of $160 a year for the toy library.” 

Volunteers at Eastern Bays Toy Library (Photo: Auckland Council)

The Toy Library, introduced in Sweden in 1963, has flourished around the world, providing loan toys small and large to children typically to school age. “Sustainability is key,” says Badger. “This guards against overconsumption and the environment thanks to you not buying toys.” 

For kids, the shiny new thing can quickly lose its appeal. So rather than making a costly investment on the latest living room rollercoaster that gets the side eye after five minutes, it can be returned and swapped for another within the three week loan period. 

“We have nearly 1,000 toys in the library,” says Badger. There are dress up clothes, musical instruments, scooters, cars, plenty of things to ride and hoon around on.

There’s a team of volunteers that keep the wheels of the bus going round and round here and membership is at 77, up from 60 in 2023. A grant from the Ōrākei Local Board meant the Toy Library could cover the rent. 

“It’s hugely valuable for our community. Our membership money only takes us so far, so the grants are so important. It really helps and makes a difference.” 

Proof, then, that it takes a village to raise a community, to effect change for the greater good and these organisations, with a little help from Local Board grant support, are taking the sting out of some of our greatest systemic and environmental challenges.