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Seven years ago Janice Lee (Ngāti Porou, Ngai Tahu) was employed as a support worker for a disability NGO in Invercargill – watching their clients receive some support but then just moving on to another disability organisation: there was no road to independence. So she decided to do something about it.

Today Koha Kai has a charitable training and development arm, a social enterprise organisation operating a food cart, and 8.5 fte staff along with a team of about 36 people with disabilities, and a group of volunteers working in 8 schools (7 in Invercargill and 1 in Tuatapere), cooking healthy koha lunches for children in low decile schools. Since 2015 over 100 people with disabilities have been provided with a recognised qualification in cooking and for some, horticulture as well – with all of them moving confidently on into further training, employment or independent living. And there’s more development planned.

The route to independence, Janice decided, was cooking: “So I just started showing a few of them each time how to cook a meal. But mostly I was doing the cooking. I thought, I need to change that. I want them to be able to do everything themselves. And I want to change a lot of things about their lives. People who live in poverty, as people with disability mostly do, can’t afford food that leads to a healthy lifestyle, so their diets are poor. They need to learn how to shop on a budget and make nutritious meals, so they are not a burden on the health system. I wanted to change all those things.”

As most of the trainees were illiterate, with a few able to sign their own names but maybe not even able to recognise their address, Janice set about a process that would allow all of them to function independently and eat well.

The lessons had first stared in a shed. Then after a few weeks, as she was dropping her grandchild off at Newfield Park primary school, she walked past the school kitchen and noticed that it was being used as a storage room. Ever open to a possibility, she asked the principal if they could use it and make school lunches for the children. The answer, of course, was Yes.

“The koha lunches were an instant success,” says Janice. “I had one mother coming to me in tears, thanking us for helping to feed her children.” The menu was always based on one meal that could be cooked on top of the stove, and one that could be cooked in the oven.

And the training programme quickly evolved so that all the trainees could succeed. This was cleverly facilitated by an app that some young men, just fresh from school and starting their own business, offered to provide.

The training process goes like this: Small groups of trainees attend a cooking class and work with Janice to make a new recipe. They are given the ingredients and emailed the recipe. Their homework is to make the recipe at home. If they can’t read it there’s a voice option on the app – but many, says Janice, quite quickly learn to recognise some words. Counting skills, too are acquired in this specially designed teaching programme. Their homework is to make the meal, taking a photo of each stage and sending it to Janice so she can see they are on the right track. “Their photos all turn up on our dashboard,” says Janice, “so we can check them off.”

There is also a colour-coded roster and a voice option on the app so that trainees can find which school they are meant to be at that day. For people who may have never made a phone call, these trainees are now comfortable using up-to-date technology.

The teaching process that Janice has developed has now been written down into a training manual, Teina Pukapuka Mahi, setting out the values, knowledge and skills for each level of the training programme. There are 6 levels: an induction which sets standards of work expectations, the Koha culture and a code of conduct. Level 1 is about personal presentation pre-start tasks, personal hygiene, emergency aids and first aid; Level 2 is all about blade skills; Level 3 mixing skills; Level 4 cooking with savoury; Level 5 cooking with sweet; Level 6 best practices; Level 7 health and food safety; Level 8 interpersonal; Level 9 technology; and Level 10 homework. The training manual is also a workbook and provides spaces for observations/feedback, as well as the signature of both the trainee and the team leader. By the time a trainee has completed all 10 levels they will be working independently and with confidence.

“Early on,” says Janice, “I could see that we were getting phenomenal results. For some people, such as those with high functioning autism, the next step has been another training course to give them the qualifications they need for their chosen career. One woman, for example has started a full-time nursing course.”

The trainees are also now helping to grow a lot of the food. At first it was the gardener at Newfield Park who offered to help. Now Koha Kai gets vegetables from three of their school gardens and one market garden. The market garden has been established on a paddock owned by some Dominican nuns. Trainees interested in employment in horticulture can work there, and study for a NCEA NZ Certificate in Horticulture Foundation studies, provided by the SIT. The gardens also provide employment opportunities for the trainees, because in Invercargill, Janice says, they can’t find work easily.

In May 2017 Koha Kai got their first funding, it was from the Southland Community Trust, and not long after that Te Pūtahitanga o Te Waipounamu, the commissioning agency for Whānau Ora in the South Island, gave them a contract.

That funding has proved to be transformative, because working with Te Pūtahitanga o Te Waipounamu, connected Janice, who was adopted, to her culture for the first time: “We have always been Koha Kai but it was frustrating to me that the only Māori thing about us was our name. Now the work we do is guided and supported by the wairua of manaakitanga, whānaungatanga. That’s why so many of us have chosen to learn te reo Māori and to speak it and sing it in our workplace. Trainees have now chosen to join kapa haka, to learn karakia, waiata. Who would have thought that people who were once thought of as being non-verbal can now speak two languages? I am so grateful for Whānau Ora for the opportunities which came with it for us.”

A recent evaluation of Koha Kai for with Te Pūtahitanga o Te Waipounamu, found that the programme had immense impacts on the trainees, whānau and the wider community.

And soon it may have positive impacts in other communities. Currently a local primary school is getting Koha Kai curriculum approved by NZQA. Then the manual will be translated into te reo Māori and the model will be ready for any other community to use.

Taylor Ward – trainee
“I started with Koha Kai four to five years ago, and I love it, I really love it. It has made my life easier. I’m 27 and until now I’ve never had a job. Now I’ve learned cooking skills and I’ve reached Level 6. It’s helped with my reading and writing, I’ve made a lot of friends, and I have more confidence. It is a great place – it gives you a purpose in life. You get up in the morning and do koha kai! I will just keep going and hope that I can get full-time employment one day. It’s given me heaps.