Living Lightly in Gisborne, New Zealand

By Sue Slater, Treasurer, Birallee Park Neighbourhood House Inc.                        

Di Mant and I spent a week on the North Island of New Zealand at the end of 2011 after being invited to give talks on the “Our Table to Yours” project.  It was known that Birallee Park Neighbourhood House actively supports Palliative Care and the Ronald McDonald Family Room at the Wodonga Hospital, and senior social workers at the Gisborne Hospital and local Gisborne District Councillors were keen to hear of the partnerships developed in an effort to reduce food insecurity in a region marked by high unemployment, obesity and diabetes.

Gisborne is tucked into the north- east curve of Poverty Bay and is surrounded by lush steep ranges falling in folds to the Pacific Ocean. Sheep graze gently and each morning, the sun shines down on the first city in the world to greet the day. It therefore seemed ironic that in this fertile area which produces fruit and vegetable crops on some of the richest soil in New Zealand, we would be asked to talk about the effort required to start a community garden from a Neighbourhood House perspective, which garden’s produce would then form the basis of nutritious meals cooked by retired or unemployed volunteers, young and old,  to be subsequently donated to those experiencing hardship.

Gisborne has a similar population to that of Wodonga, with about 30,000 living in the city and, together with the rich alluvial river flats and mild climate, both districts are perfect for the growing of food. However, like Wodonga, there appears to be a growing epidemic of food insecurity, helped along by the current state of the economy, and the convenience of modern technology and food production. No longer are we required to grow our own food to sustain us – yet with the abundance available to us, we suffer rising levels of diabetes, obesity, fatal illnesses, and continue to purchase overseas imported food. But now there is a push for more sustainable practices, and just as in Wodonga, the Gisborne and local citizens are demanding that we return to the days of growing healthy vegetables, farmers markets, and supporting local farmers.

Against this background, we were warmly received, and hopefully imparted some useful information, in order that the Gisborne local community and smaller outlying settlements would support moves to grow local food, rescue excess produce, and collectively gather to assist those less fortunate, just as the wider Wodonga Community has supported the Our Table to Yours project.