The pātaka that started it all. All images by the author.

These Public Pantries Aim To Decolonise Food Access in New Zealand

Known as pātaka, they tap into a centuries-old Māori system for sharing food within a community.

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16 January 2019, 2:00am

The pātaka that started it all. All images by the author.

“When we decided to go with Pātaka Kai, as Māori, it just meant going back to how we used to do things pre-colonisation… It encompasses the way of life for Māori, in the way that they shared food and worked on one thing for the benefit of all.” I was visiting Swanie Nelson, creator of the Pātaka Kai movement, at her Otara home to learn about the community pantries sweeping across New Zealand. Wearing a vibrant pink and yellow skirt, bright red lipstick and a big smile, Swanie emphasised that this was no novel concept—the roots of Pātaka Kai are centuries deep in the traditional Māori pātaka (community pantries), which were customarily used to share food, supplies and weaponry within a community.

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A traditional Māori pātaka at Te Papaiouru Marae in Rotorua.

A few moments earlier, I had pulled up to the pātaka where it all started—drive down Otara’s Cooper Crescent and you can’t miss it. Sprawled in the sun at its base was Swanie’s Staffordshire bull terrier, Django. He hardly lifted his head as I approached, no longer fazed by the constant traffic of people donating and taking food. In bold letters on the pātaka above him, a sign read “Take what you need, Give what you can”. Just four months had passed since Swanie first put the pātaka out front, and nearly 100 others had already popped up in neighbourhoods across New Zealand. I wanted to learn how and why Pātaka Kai had spread so quickly, and figured that the movement’s source was the best place to start.

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Swanie Nelson.

Swanie had become a legend in my mind from following the Pātaka Kai Facebook group. I watched—along with some 8000 others in the group—as she organised donations, crowd-sourced materials, got on top of health-and-safety issues and, most memorably, upheld a strong no-bullshit attitude towards people disrespecting and taking advantage of the movement. Scrolling through the group, you find her frequent unfiltered Facebook live videos, recorded from her cluttered work desk, while stuck in traffic on the motorway, or while snacking on donated food and shouting out to its supplier.

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Each pātaka has its own kaitiaki.

Offering me a seat on her back porch, Swanie reflected on how it all started. Pātaka Kai is the most recent project in Swanie’s long history of uniting her community. After working in the social services sector for nearly two decades, helping underserved communities in and around Auckland, she and her husband wanted to bring the mahi to their own neighborhood. “Seven years ago, we made it our mission to turn this whole street of strangers into neighbours… But through that process we became very familiar with what was going on behind closed doors.” Pride often prevents families from being open about their struggles, and suffering in silence is often preferred to letting your hardships be judged by the world.

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Pastor Hore Epere at the opening of a pātaka.

“People are going hungry almost everyday,” Swanie says. She speaks about the cost of living in Auckland like it is an epidemic afflicting her loved ones. It’s unaffordable for many families to access enough food, forcing them to depend on social services like food banks and Salvation Army centres. However, the various hoops that they have to jump through, along with the stigma attached to using these services, can often make the process of getting help stressful—if not impossible. “It’s not meant to replace a food bank, but it’s definitely designed to fill gaps in our system, where a lot of our community—I kid you not— a lot of them are unable to access these other [services].”

Let’s suppose this week is a tight one in your household. In order to feed your family through traditional social services, you’d usually need to attend appointments and submit applications with no guarantee that you'll get help in the end. Pātaka Kai, however, provides an immediate and judgment-free solution to food insecurity, 24 hours a day. “Nobody is checking for criteria, nobody is judging anybody, nobody is having to fill out application forms.”

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Taniwha Ventures perform kapa haka at the opening of Puke Pātaka.

I visited about a dozen pātaka across South and West Auckland to talk to the kaitiaki (guardians) about the phenomenon. Still riding the high of the movement’s youth, all were impassioned by the immediate benefits that they noticed in their neighbourhoods. They all agreed that the responsibility of maintaining a pātaka was no small undertaking, but also that they had never felt so connected to their communities.

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The busiest days at pātaka across Auckland are Sunday through Tuesday, when weekly paychecks dwindle and refrigerators in many homes are nearing empty. On these days the traffic to many pātaka is non-stop: more children stop on their way to and from school, and more adults come in the evening to gather supplies for dinner. However, after Wednesday’s money arrives, donations more than compensate. Swanie says that once a community has the mutual respect to give and take, the pātaka become self-sufficient. “People have now just developed this common courtesy of like… after they’ve taken, maybe a week later they might be able to get a bag of rice and give that back.”

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Many people are inclined to celebrate the popularity and traction of the Pātaka Kai movement, but Swanie is reluctant to rejoice while the underlying causes of the need for the pātaka remain stubbornly in place. “I don’t think it came down to popularity, I think it came down to need at the end of the day. It’s actually quite sad because it means that what we knew was happening in our own community, was actually happening across the whole country, and that’s an issue.” The day when the driving factor of the movement’s growth is building bridges in the community, rather than feeding hungry families, will be the day that Swanie will celebrate.

Until then, she has plenty of work to do, distributing pātaka to the streets that need them most.

For more information, and for locations of every pātaka nationwide, please visit patakai.co.nz, and join the Free Open Street Pantries Facebook group.

You can see more of Wesley's work here.