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  • Writer's pictureMark Revington

Food security essential for Māori

Updated: Jan 22

Kia ora e te whānau and welcome to 2024.

Let’s kōrero about food security and sovereignty. Or rather, food insecurity. These are terms which have caught the eye recently, especially with the cost of food and cost of living rising dramatically.

Māori have always had a special relationship with the whenua and kai, eating it together and gathering and producing it sustainably.  Various iwi are known for their specialty kai, like tītī for Ngāi Tahu. It is part of their identity. Mahinga kai or mahika kai, which literally means to work the food, was a central part of Te Kerēme or the Ngāi Tahu Claim because it was intrinsic to the cultural value of the iwi. Mahika kai is sometimes referred to as the DNA of the iwi, central to identity and so important that it is enshrined in legislation. At its simplest, mahika kai refers to the gathering of kai; the places it is found and the way it is harvested.

Lengths of prepared eel hanging up to dry, a common mahika kai for Māori.

Mahika kai is important to many of our NAIA whānau, including our director Che Wilson. “There is mana in sharing kai. It is important to not just break bread together,” says Che.

He’s a keen gardener, for many reasons, one of them being as simple as the fact he loves it.  “It is important and it grounds me.” It was the practice of his tīpuna, he says. Their primary goal was food gathering and gardening.

Food, especially kūmara, is expensive and growing what he loves is a partial answer to that conundrum. And he likes preserves and relishes, partly to share kai and partly to keep going the practices of his parents and grandparents. As he says, there is mana in sharing kai.

And he makes mean rewana bread using a bug from his tīpuna that is more than a century old.

A headline the other day caught my eye. ‘How to eat like our tīpuna’, it said. It was written by Te Ahipourewa Forbes and consisted of an interview with Rangi Mātāmua who had recently featured in a show called Mahi Kai where he had to live off the land.

He explained that he had always eeled and hunted and harvested food but nowadays he is so busy traveling that he has less time to source his own kai, except at the supermarket.

“I grew up with my grandfather who was always gardening so there was always some form of food production happening,” he told the journalist. “There was always this idea of ohu mahi – working together, sharing food. When you went somewhere, you always took food with you. You only ever gather what you need and you don't gather to sell, you gather to eat.”

Research shows that digging in the dirt makes you happy. It improves life satisfaction and mood. Evidently, digging stirs up microbes which can stimulate serotonin which can make you feel relaxed and happier. It may help explain why Che loves gardening. Just don’t call it food security or sovereignty, he says.

“They are two of the worst terms out. What does food sovereignty mean? It simply means māra kai.”

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