10 Feb 2022

Common Unity: a flourishing community hub

From Nine To Noon, 9:30 am on 10 February 2022

Ten years ago, Julia Milne started teaching children at a Hutt Valley primary school how to grow their own kai.

That project has become Common Unity - a community hub that feeds 2,000 schoolchildren every week with produce grown by Kainga Ora tenants and Rimutaka Prison inmates.

Originally, Milne's vision was to make big pots of soup from what the kids grew at Epuni School gardens, but it's powerful what happens when you share food, she tells Kathryn Ryan.

Once common unity got its own premises, they "called a really big hui around kai".

"We said 'who is also interested in this space in the Hutt Valley? Who wants to grow food with us? And from that a whole lot of new opportunities [arose]."

Common Unity's story is told in a new documentary Together We Grow.

Shot after New Zealand's first Covid-19 lockdown of 2020, the doco follows the Kōkiri Marae team distributing meals made with produce mostly grown by inmates at Upper Hutt's Rimutaka Prison.

In lockdown, prisoners are even more isolated, Milne says, and they were grateful for the opportunity to feed whānau as a way of connecting with the outside.

"All of a sudden you are needed, you are important… everyone wanted to respond and do something. Everyone needs to feel purposeful, especially when there's a feeling of helplessness that might surround you on a daily basis."

Much of the produce Common Unity supplies is now grown in the backyards of nearby Kainga Ora tenants and gardens at Rimutaka Prison.

Putting gardens and urban farms into "the harder places in our communities" - such as prisons, residential care facilities and state housing developments - helps create a sense of shared wellbeing, Milne says.

She loves observing the powerful sense of connection that can come with growing and sharing kai.

"Sometimes in some of our communities, we can hold a belief that there's not enough for me, there's not enough for everyone. It's quite transformative when you move into a belief that not only can I create abundance but I can share."

For Milne, the mission is also personal.

"I just can't stand the idea that I go home at night and have the best quality food and there are people around me who don't get that."

Unfortunately, New Zealand's food regulations don't always support the kind of work Common Unity is doing, Milne says.

Alongside the release of Together We Grow, Common Unity is releasing a toolkit that other community kai groups can use to start implementing urban food production.

"There are so many gaps in our regulations and so many things that get in the way of making this stuff really easy and we just wanted to have a go at helping others."