A paddock in the ocean. For the longest time, that’s how we saw ourselves. A rugged-yet-bountiful colonial outpost tasked with sending the finest ingredients back to feed the mother country and then the world.
Our food story is still trapped in that culture of ingredients. We grow and ship off the best lamb, kiwifruit and wine, but in forever looking outwards, we’ve ignored the richness of our own food culture.
I’ve had the chance to travel from Northland to Stewart Island and wrap my life in our food story. I have a responsibility to represent what so many farmers, catchers, food transformers and experience-guides have told me; we have to grow up, acknowledge the limits of our legacy and rebuild food in Aotearoa on our own terms.
Consider this. Our cuisine is not Manuka honey. Our cuisine is a dollop of Manuka honey in a cup of tea boiled on a high country farm where the hives push up against the bush.
Our cuisine is the seaweed-eating sheep of Ruapuke. It’s the cove on Stewart Island littered with scallops, which have to be consumed in place. It’s wild venison shot by a Wahine Toa teaching other women how to feed their families and the black cockles of Koukourarata. It’s Kawa kawa when administered by an expert in Rongoā. It’s mussels harvested by paddleboard in the Marlborough Sounds. Or the Saturday morning finding the best Polynesian food at the Otara Market. It’s having a conversation with the beautiful minds who imagine paua salami and giant squid ice creams. It’s sitting at the chef’s table of Hiakai restaurant. Nowhere else in the world can you have a Pinot Noir enjoyed in the vineyard on the shores of Lake Wanaka or listen to the history of the Te Rau Aroha truck in the astonishing marae in Bluff by the same name. Where else can you catch a weka for the pot or listen to the songs and stories of the Kererū by Tuhoē? Have you ever watched steam rising from hāngi while a navigator explains the Ātea a Rangi in Napier, and Matariki appears over the horizon?
Ours is a food story about people in place. It is mahinga kai – the idea that people are connected to the land through food they find there. Could it be that our lack of connection is related to our endless search for a definition of our cuisine?
As calls for a national food strategy grow ever louder, it’s this ‘people in place’ centered framing that should inspire us. At Eat New Zealand, a national food collective, we’ve taken to calling this idea ‘Citizenry of Food’ – a bottom-up, people powered version of the top-down, status quo notion of a ‘Ministry of Food’.
Our ‘Citizenry of Food’ starts with Taiao – a reflection of our inseparable bond to our environment. Our food story is shaped by our landscape - abundant fresh water and sunshine, our submerged continent. We are more hilly than flat. We shake but don’t often burn. We are drying out as climate breakdown starts to bite. Our food system can only ever exist within the ecological confines of our environment – it is both the source and limit of anything we can hope to grow.
Within this limit I believe four pillars must underpin the Citizenry of Food.
Food Sovereignty is about protecting the right of Māori to eat healthy food from the land, waterways and oceans of Aotearoa.
If tangata whenua can’t fish tūna (eel) from a healthy river, as their tipuna (ancestors) did because of Saharan phosphate, European cows and American tractors, then what are we saying about how we value what makes us unique?
For me as Pākehā, it’s about having the humility to acknowledge the sacred link between Māori and land and the sense to see that breaking this link will forever trap us in a story that isn’t ours. There can be no real New Zealand identity without Māori.
Protecting indigenous rights to connect with the natural environment through food is the deep act of reconciliation we need to forge a strong, shared identity. It’s also the foundation of our ‘people in place’ national food story. Without Māori food sovereignty, we will only ever be a paddock in an ocean.
Food Resilience is about responding to the incoming shocks to our food system – such as pandemics or climate breakdown. We should build local, short supply chains that deliver food security right across the plate including meat, dairy, fruit, vegetables, grains and fish.
The third pillar is Food Access – acknowledging every Kiwi’s right to a nutrient-dense, healthy diet made up of our own food. That so many of us go hungry or suffer food related illness in our land of plenty undercuts our claim to be a ‘food nation’ and poses painful questions about what we actually value. Access is also about teaching cooking and growing skills – it’s a hand up, not just a food bank hand out.
Finally, Economic Sustainability speaks to the right to derive an income from producing and transforming food. Farmers, growers and catchers need fair returns to grow and catch sustainably. It also speaks to a right to trade, which is intrinsic to both our pre and post-colonial history.
We have an identity crisis that sits around our food, and an urgent need to ensure we are all represented in this national conversation. I invite your disagreement and conversation – because in the Citizenry of Food, we all have a say.