An oasis in Ōtara

Publish Date : 12 Nov 2020
An Oasis in Otara

Kai, connection, and creation are joining together at the Ōtara Town Centre in powerful ways through the Ōtara Kai Village (OKV), sponsored in-part by Auckland Council.

The mostly volunteer group works with retailers and manufacturers to support locals impacted by COVID-19 and redistribute food that would otherwise go to waste. They’ve shared more than 14,000 free meals recently in an empty space that was dormant for 10 years before they revitalised it next to the AT Ōtara Transit Centre.  

Local residents, community organisations, and students from local colleges prepare free meals each weekday in a container donated by Panuku. A café and Māori & Pacific boutique are also available for entrepreneurs to start their own businesses without the financial pressures of a traditional commercial environment, as well as providing a space for community groups to do fundraising.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff says he’s pleased to see the project get underway.

“Taking good food that would otherwise be wasted and providing nutritious meals to those in need makes sense. I also welcome help given to people to start up their own businesses and the free book cabinet,” he says.

“This project represents a creative approach that is cost-effective and I thank the council, locals, funders and volunteers for their initiative and support.”

The original vision was to build a community garden nearby and sell the vegetables at cost, but when COVID-19 hit, the team knew they couldn’t wait for food to grow.

OKV Project Leader Lee Naniseni explains, “There is massive food insecurity that happens when jobs are lost and incomes are stretched. We knew this was going to happen and what we could do about it. Local residents, food banks, MSD and Foundation North jumped in to support and to meet the need with a healthy and artisanal alternative to fast food.”

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Swanie Nelson (pictured above), Local Board member and Ōtara Kai Village Founder, says, “With COVID-19, we were one of the most severely-impacted suburbs in the whole of Auckland. We had the highest wage subsidy requests and the highest requests for the emergency care packages.”

She explains, “Our local residents do care about environmental impacts in our community; however, the priority right now for families is ensuring food is on the table and a roof is over their heads. Through our kaupapa we are able to meet that immediate need that families are more concerned about right now. Then, through that opportunity we example and weave those important messages around the environment and waste minimisation to them in the way it needs to be communicated.”

A place of comfort for the community

Panuku donated the 40 ft container that’s been transformed into the main hub. An information kiosk was set up after volunteers noticed residents having many of the same questions and needs. Barnardos, alongside a long list of other social service providers, have been using it once a week because, according to one social worker, “it’s more approachable and convenient for people to have their questions answered at their pace in a way that’s easier for them.”

OKV Project Leader Daniel Brown agrees, saying, “This is a place of comfort for the community. We love finding ways to collaborate. We’ve created the whanau vibe and it’s grown on its own based on what people want. The basketball hoop has been really popular. The pataka pukapuka (free book cabinet) is heavily used and stocked, with a local Afghani immigrant looking after it since it began. Early childhood centres pass by on their health walks, and the kids check it out to get new books.”

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Enjoyed by young and old

The Ōtara Kai Village is also a popular place for local elders staying at the nearby Ōtara Courts. Their kaitiaki Poto Toru keeps everyone up to speed on the schedule and makes sure they come by for whatever interests them. Lee estimates, “We know at least half the elders in the neighbourhood thanks to Poto’s stewardship.”

If you don’t know Poto, you can still find out what’s going on by checking the online calendar. That’s also the place to book a spot if you’d like to fundraise there or use the information kiosk.

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The Ōtara Kai Village has been far more buzzy than the team imagined when they opened up at level 2 of the first lockdown. Lee shares some examples of the koha they’ve received, saying, “People see us on Facebook or Instagram and stop by with donations from across New Zealand. People came from Rotorua to distribute homemade, free reusable masks. There’s always a demand for baby food and nappies, too.

Swanie reflects on the foundation they are building together as a community, saying, “Any money goes directly back into sustaining the village, creating employment opportunities and supporting local initiatives that contribute to seeing local people thrive and improving their well-being.”

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