Kelly Francis (Ngapuhi), who started Whenua Warriors in South Auckland in 2017, now has a long-term plan that will build resilience and sustainability into our food supply.

When we wrote about Whenua Warriors in 2018 they had already established over 280 gardens in people’s backyards, papakāinga, schools, kohanga, marae, emergency houses, women’s refuges and community spaces.

Since then they have received a grant from Foundation North to implement their four-stage strategic plan: stages 1 and 2, research and planning have been completed and they were just about to start the Doing Phase when Covid-19 hit. With no vegetable seedlings available Kelly’s Covid-19 plan didn’t stop at helping people get through this crisis, it was designed to support a community-led process to build food security and connect people to their whenua.

At the beginning of the lockdown Kelly told us:

“What people are realising now is the importance of food and gardening at home. Not only are the stores that sell seeds and seedlings closed, I have noticed the heritage seeds websites are not supplying either. Even seed banks are saying they have no seeds available. That defeats the purpose for which they were created! In the lockdown I have not been successful in getting supplies from our local seed suppliers. What this tells me is – seeds are the new currency. You only have to look at the power that Monsanto has, to start worrying about the control of seeds. So we want to grow our own, teach people in our South Auckland communities to collect their own seeds for themselves and for us to buy or purchase, and start our own seed raising hub.”

Kelly lives at Ihumātao, and that’s where Whenua Warriors plans to grow seeds. There’s an old cow shed there and by using some of the Foundation North grant set aside for the purpose, they will be converting this into the seed hub.

Whenua Warriors has been running community education sessions on how to grow vegetables since it began. In the lockdown they produced videos so that people could join in online. The Facebook page and blogs also educate people about what they can do, and how to do it. All the online classes have been, as usual, in response to what the community say that they need to know.

There are also plans, Kelly says, to ramp up the backyard vegetable garden building: “We have a backlog of 100 gardens that need building – about 30 in Manurewa, 30 in Otara and the rest in Mangere. We have applied to the council for a multi-board grant – $10,000 for each of the communities.”

Post lockdown Kelly, actively supported by Board members, has got on with their vision of building community food sovereignty based on taonga tuku iho, or Māori heritage.

Board member Grayson Gosse calls it “a prototype for a collaborative whenua war” and says that the fact that the movement is community-led will be the key to its success.

Kelly links Covid-19 and the climate crisis and sees this time as transformative:

“We are adding to the conversation about how to navigate climate change and the mental, physical and spiritual benefits that there are to whānau in being connected to our environment. Redundancies, the loss of livelihoods and the capacity of people to put food on the table is being lost. It is important that our communities become accountable for what is in their food system: how they feed their children, their grandparents and themselves. Now, under the pressure of this pandemic, this is the time to do it. We have been blaming other people for our health, now our community must be accountable, or it will never happen. There is a lot to lose. We need to stand on our own feet and the way to do this is through food.

“I also want to say how amazing it was during the lockdown to see people in the community coming together to ensure the survival of the people round them. It’s been so impressive. We are very lucky to have this. We have created an attitude around donating and receiving without shame. We have opened our hearts to help neighbours, creating a habit of giving naturally. Making gardens will now come easily, so that we can have food that is clean and healthy – that we can be proud of, that will secure our future. There is a Māori saying, Nā tō rourou, nā taku rourou ka ora ai te iwi: If your food basket is full and my basket is full, we will all eat.”