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Food for the table

The Weekender takes a look at the phenomenal momentum Gisborne Intermediate’s mara kai programme has gained, thanks to food technology teacher Tina Swann . . .

A new garden-to-table programme being promoted to schools nationwide is nothing new at Gisborne Intermediate School, which has been pioneering a gardening programme for several years and will be the first to offer it as a core manual subject.

It all started when the school’s food technology teacher Tina Swann began encouraging students to get into mara kai (food gardening).

She had long been concerned about the number of children in her classes who did not eat vegetables.

“It seems to be a choice that is allowed in many families.”

At the same time, she was amazed at how many students had food allergies, which was a serious medical condition.

About the same number had food anxieties, which caused some to vomit when confronted with something such as a mushroom or tomato, even though they had no specific allergy.

She was also coming across an amazing number of 10-13 year-old “vegans” who had no idea of nutrition, protein and vitamin requirements and their alternative sources.

A mother of five children whose husband is an organic farmer, Tina had always been big on natural food and a balanced diet.

She pondered some of the emerging food trends among preteens, and the fact that many were coming to school hungry.

She had already encouraged students to develop a small kitchen garden in the courtyard outside the food technology room, but her ideas for a real kitchen garden blossomed in 2016, when the school’s ERO report emphasised the need for the school to integrate learning into the community, bring in community expertise and to address the under-achievement of many Maori students.

She considered how all these things could be achieved within the context of mara kai, growing food for the table, and decided to do her Masters degree focussing on the hows and whys of her concept while introducing them to the school.

Gardens have sprouted up all over the school groundsWith the support of school principal Glenn Udall and help from EIT’s School of Primary Industries, the concept of developing gardening at the school gained momentum. It also fitted in well with Gisborne Intermediate’s school vision “Whakatipu iwi nui” — growing great people.

A call for students interested in joining a gardening club was swamped with enthusiastic kids. Before long gardens were sprouting up all over the school grounds.

The students designed and built a courtyard garden where people could relax and eat their lunch, with the students insisting on wide pathways through it so classmates in wheelchairs could enjoy it too.

Then came a remembrance garden, developed when they were learning about the Anzacs.

Tina says it fitted in well with her research into service learning, whereby kids could learn to step outside themselves and do things for the benefit of others.

She had noticed an emerging sense of entitlement among recent generations, and was surprised by how much most students enjoyed doing something for others.

“I see kids who don’t know what a potato peeler is or don’t know how to do the dishes.”

They were growing up in a busy world where most things were done for them. The mara kai concept was bringing them back to some of the basics of healthy living.

“They also like the idea they are leaving something behind for others to benefit from in the future.”

Tina incorporated kaupapa Maori into the project to better engage Maori kids into mainstream learning and core competencies.

All the students were now well versed with customary practices such as karakia (prayers) before planting, the lunar calendar and companion planting.

All these practices were used as part of their normal activities, helping those involved develop the core values of respect, integrity and excellence.

They were also learning the spirit of collaboration by working in teams.

The senior students were helping newcomers, which provided the project with continuity.

With help from EIT and companies such as Leaderbrand and PPG Wrightsons, the students were now helping design and build community gardens.

Parents, grandparents and other members of the school community were turning up with things such as coffee grinds, seaweed and fadges of dried leaves to help the students make compost, so the whole project was extending beyond the school gates.

The community gardens would eventually help families supplement their household budgets by getting some fruit and vegetables.

Tina hopes this will foster new lifelong habits, especially for students, and encourage better nutrition.

She had come across kids who refused to eat home-grown veges because they were dirty, preferring those which had been waterblasted and wrapped in plastic.

Over time, these kids were discovering the joy of getting their hands in the dirt and washing and preparing their own healthy food.

To introduce students to new flavours and textures, she teaches them how to dress up their two-minute noodles with a few shredded vegetables and suddenly they have created a stirfry.

She also teaches them to preserve and make pickles using a microwave oven, which they can do at home.

At the same time they are learning the rudiments of nutrition, and the things their bodies need for physical fitness and mental agility.

The project continues to evolve over time, as does Tina’s Masters thesis.

She is now calling it “Marapreneurs” and hopes it will one day help eliminate the need for schools to take part in the Kiwi lunches programme for hungry kids.

Tina Swann in the garden at Gisborne Intermediate. Pictures by Paul Rickard
Tina Swann with teacher Anna Delautour and Gisborne Intermediate students.