Weaving Community Through Food

Michael Reynolds explores food sovereignty and the potential of the commons.

The universality of food can invite a lot into our lives. When we take the time to think about the roles it can play – there are actually many! Food can provide us with the fuel and nutrition that we need to function at a certain physical and mental level, it invites cultural, emotional and spiritual richness into our lives and it also has political and economic significance, which has had an impact on the way we think, feel and talk about it.

Illustration by: Tom Ryan. Based on an original painting by W Taylor (Milford Sound CA 1900) Held at Alexander Turnbull Library G-299

Food can also act as a connection to place and what place means to us. How we engage with food frames our relationship with land, water and air, thus, the more connected we are with our food – who grows it, how they grow it and where it is grown – the deeper our connection with our environment. Food can act as a conduit for environmental guardianship.

It is amazing how often food is present – in some way or another – in the important moments or experiences in our lives. We have a deeply embedded cultural practice of sharing and food and time; taking a loved one out for dinner; a picnic with our whānau on a lovely summer’s day; a quick bite on the way home after an epic night with friends; a meal shared on holiday with a complete stranger. These are all moments and events that shape who we are and inform the stories that we share with those close to us, that add richness and texture to the fabric of our lives. This can look like many different things or take many forms, but it is important to acknowledge that this is part of who we are, and is a practice that has been present throughout all of our history.

But one of the key elements of food that needs to sit front and center is our ability to choose how we interact with it and the roles that it plays in our lives. This is not something that should be decided by another group, authority or corporation. We can adopt a practice of sovereignty in our relationship with food.

“our actions in a practice of sovereignty are about taking responsibility for outcomes, and how our decisions and actions impact every facet of life around us.”

When I think about the concept of sovereignty I always end up coming back to the idea of self-determination. That our actions in a practice of sovereignty are about taking responsibility for outcomes, and how our decisions and actions impact every facet of life around us. If we are to be honest with ourselves, we would acknowledge the fact that at this moment in time, sovereignty in many parts of our lives has been whittled away, through political and economic mechanisms, and our food system is a part of that. How our food is produced, where it is produced, the journey it takes from production to us, how we consume it, and the external impacts of those decisions too.

It’s a big deal, because sovereignty of our food supply plays a big role in how safe and secure we feel as individuals and within our communities, and it is one of the visible expressions of the inequality that is present in today’s society. Throughout the history of mankind, food has played a significant role in defining the cultural context within which we exist and how our communities have evolved; one could easily draw a parallel between how disconnected we are from our food supply and from each other. I believe we are having trouble identifying the level of that disconnection, and this is the main thing blocking us from making an impactful shift towards a meaningful relationship with our food and what it can represent.

The exciting bit for me is that this opens up a huge opportunity into our lives to claim back the sovereignty of our food and everything that connects with it! Sitting at this road block I find myself asking a lot of questions – “What is our relationship with food?”, “Are we stuck with this industrial-technological agricultural food production system?”, “Is there some room for a multi-faceted approach, whereby we seek to satisfy different aspects of our needs from food from different spaces?”, “Or do we break it open completely and forge a food system that heralds a re-connection with nature and each other – a deeper emotional/spiritual commitment that serves the well-being of all?”. These are big questions, but super exciting ones. They present a real opportunity and a great challenge for us at an existential level.

To put some context around how I ended up with these questions running around my head and why I get so excited by it all, I will share a little of my own story. I work in community development in Christchurch, specifically with how we can build and support changes in our food systems to increase community well-being. This has been a practice of rediscovery for me, which was invited by the disruption of the earthquakes that occurred in Christchurch in 2010/11.

“Disruption creates gaps, nooks, and sometimes chasms in which hope and a new way of being can be explored.”

Natural disasters suck. There is always loss, pain, deep levels of stress, sadness, material destruction; and there is a lot of negative response to this disruption – it is important to acknowledge this. However, there is also opportunity. Disruption creates gaps, nooks, and sometimes chasms in which hope and a new way of being can be explored. The rediscovery of community has been a big learning in Christchurch post-earthquake, and one of the first ways in which that happened, even when people were burdened by all the negative emotional responses to disaster, was to feed people. Feeding neighbours, family members, and more often than not complete strangers. It was a natural and dynamic response to circumstance, but it points to a deep and spiritual desire to connect and care for each other. We have experienced first hand how food can call that into our lives.

Not all change can happen through such a major disruption and my experience over the last seven years tells me that there is no “one size fits all” solution to the challenges that are presenting themselves, but there are underlying values and principles that can empower communities to create solutions that are reflective of their communal identity. Any strategies employed around food sovereignty have to be an expression of our spiritual, emotional, cultural, and social relationship with food, nature and each other.

The reason I get so excited about this stuff is that I believe it has the ability to impact all areas of our lives. Food is a universal language that brings people together; it transcends age, income, culture and gender if we allow it. Sovereignty over our food invites change at a community level, and eventually societal, if we choose to pursue it. An example of a local food initiative in Christchurch that is taking a community focused and holistic ecosystem approach to designing a future food system, is Roimata Food Commons. It is a community held and driven project that is reimagining the role of communal green space, with the expressed aim of increasing the wellbeing of our ecosystem – humans included. It started with a communal orchard of more than sixty heritage fruit trees and over five hundred native trees, shrubs and grasses. Future additions will be a communal vegetable production space and beehives, and there is hope to include an education centre, access to Opawaho/Heathcote awa and a full outdoor kitchen. The project hosts community events with the aims of connection and environmental guardianship.

What I have learnt from being involved with Roimata Food Commons is that the food side of these conversations is actually the easy bit. The knowledge is all there, whether it be a practice that has been passed down through the generations or learned recently through a more formal process. The desire is there too. The bit that is usually missing is someone to create and conserve that space; a leadership role, whether it is an individual or a group, needs to emerge from within the community it seeks to serve, and at its core must exhibit the practices of service and inclusivity. It is only when we hold these practices at the heart of what we do within our community that we create the opportunity for meaningful impact.

Often when talking about food sovereignty we can get caught up in the commodification of food, the political and economic value of food, or limit its role to nutrition. The unfortunate thing about that is that it separates us from the emotional, spiritual, environmental, social and cultural realms of what food can call to us.

I propose that we co-create a vision of what food sovereignty looks like, both personally and for our communities. Food as an invitation for us to step into a role of environmental and social guardianship. Communities expressing a connection to people and place, sharing the story of what place means to us, calling us to a rediscovery of living life with an intentional citizenship, and reconnecting us to that magical sense of discovery in our relationship with nature.

When I take the time to connect to my inner vision of food sovereignty, one of the most challenging but impactful pieces is the concept of time. We frequently use time to measure ourselves, and this really has altered our relationship with food. In creating a world that values being busy and “productive” we have made less time for the meaningful cultural practices that food invites, none more valuable than the practice of slowing down. When I talk about being slow with food I refer to growing and consuming the most nutrient-rich and seasonally appropriate food possible, which requires an investment of time, recognition of natural processes and maintaining a balance within the ecosystem we inhabit. Food provides us with an opportunity to sit face to face while we eat together, which creates the necessary space to pause from a busy and productive day and look each other in the eye. This common experience encourages us to share more than the meal, but also our thoughts, our experiences and our lives. The more intention we hold in the production and consumption of food, the greater the positive impact on our experience.

Where we live and where we produce food is also a major challenge. As our population grows and becomes increasingly urban, we continue to make land use decisions that increase our distance from the source of our food. Urban density decreases land available for practicing self-sufficiency, which reinforces the transfer of sovereignty of our food from citizens to private organisations. Imagine being able to pick, swap, or buy almost all of your fruit and vegetables and know that it was grown within thirty minutes of where you live. When we take the time to hear the stories of the generations that proceeded ours, we learn that this was their truth. Even my parents generation, born in the 1940’s and 50’s, grew fruit and veges, sourced meat from family members with farms and only bought staple items from a local store. This feels a more honest expression of food sovereignty than I have ever experienced. People are referring to the idea of a simpler and more proximal food system as “hyper-localism”, which tells us how seasonality and place interact to express a regional food identity. There is growing desire to know and make much deeper connections with our food, its origins and its journey. Hyper-localism was the reality for my grandparents and many generations prior, negating some of the economic burden that exists with food today, as people were able to swap/trade/barter their goods for those of others. The encouraging thing is that these stories are still being told and they are inspiring a new generation of people to reconnect with this cultural practice. We could chose to reconfigure land use to nurture this connection with food, nature and each other, enabling a regenerative economic and political structure to empower and govern our newly sovereign communities.

Through Roimata Food Commons we can explore this crossover between localism and food. As a not-for-profit voluntary organisation we are exploring the idea of “The Commons”. Our Trust was very intentional when choosing our name as it harks back to a concept which has largely disappeared from our cities and towns, and from our language. The idea of the commons originates from feudal Europe, where land owned by the crown and administered by a local lord was made available for use by the wider community, for pasturing stock, harvesting timber, foraging or fishing. In exploring the notion of the commons, I came across some amazing words by Robert Lovelace, a citizen of Ardoch Algonquin First Nation, about the opportunity that our use of language calls into our lives. How we speak to one another and how we describe and discuss the world in which we live determines our success in relating to our world. Indigenous cultures hold the notion of commons as a natural expression of the relationship between communities and the world in which they live. Indigenous systems of knowledge reflect observational interaction with the earth, enlightened discovery, symbolic imagery, and social reinforcement, all of which is directed toward a deep understanding of the local. This is expressed and held deeply within Te Ao Ngai Tahu, through the practice of Mahinga Kai, a concept which relates to Ngai Tahu’s practice in traditional food and other natural resources, the places where those resources are obtained and how they’re shared. Maybe the commons in feudal times held elements of this too? It seems there is a logical pathway ahead of us, one that honours the wisdom of our tīpuna and starts to weave together this ancient knowledge into something that expresses the rich diversity of our people and the hopes and dreams that we hold collectively.

When I reflect on this in conjunction with the idea of commons, it really does invoke a feeling that our concept of ownership, pursuit of accumulation, boundaries and control, is what causes the separation from our land, water and each other. I see the opportunity to adopt a different view. A community built on commonly held land, language, and values, that invites us to hold a space for the betterment of our ecosystem, and hence, our own of wellbeing. We need to sit within our communities with optimism, deep understanding and a virtue of service. It is at this point where we will be staking a claim for the sovereignty of our food, our land, our water, our environment, our wellbeing, but most importantly, our journey into a shared and nourishing future.