“When this all started we were just excited to be doing something ‘cool’ and positive to help” says Founder of Koha Kai, Janice Lee, “but as the week went on, the work and the people, brought a sobering realisation.
Published: Thursday, 16 April 2020 | Rāpare, 16 Paengawhāwhā, 2020
This is not camp. This is not fun. It’s essential. This is our duty, our responsibility - to care for our community”.
Working out of two kitchens under lockdown in Invercargill, Janice Lee (Ngāi Tahu/Ngāti Porou) and her skeleton crew, pump out 400 meals a day for some of the most vulnerable people across Murihiku (Southland) – including the town with New Zealand’s second largest cluster, Bluff.
They focus on kaumātua, the disabled community and solo parents – particularly in the rural areas of the deep South.
“We support whānau to stay in isolation without worrying about where their next meal will come from. We’re also offering relief to worried children who live elsewhere, even as far as New York, sending food to their parents and grandparents”.
Developing and serving the community
Koha Kai is a multi award-winning charitable Trust. Usually it offers training and employment for people with disabilities and provides lunches to more than 1700 school children using a teaching kitchen and food from its own maara kai.
Today Koha Kai is an Emergency Provider. Its networks, reputation and commercial grade kitchens, as well as its own workforce and food supply made emergency services propose a partnership after the Tasman fires in 2019. When the Southland Floods hit in February this year, Koha Kai was out feeding people within two hours. It is now serving its community in crisis again.
Joining forces with community health and social service providers Awarua Whānau Services and Ngā Kete Mātauranga Pounamu, boosts the number of communities and kilometres that Koha Kai can cover. Plus it maximises local ‘intelligence’.
An eye out for whānau
"It's about connecting the dots and making sure people who need the food get it," she says, “We’ve had whānau who’ve lost loved ones during this crisis and they are in a terrible state. The school principal reached out to say ‘this whānau is in trouble, there’s this many people in that house’, and we supplied them with whānau meals.”
Janice is aware of her responsibility to maintain the advised safe distances while going from door to door and also to stay alert to whānau welfare. She describes it as having ‘eyes on’.
“I met a kuia living alone, just her cat and her TV. Through the window we chatted about her daughter ‘up north somewhere’ who was worried and had set up the meal order. The kuia insisted she was fine and didn’t want to be a burden. But I realised I was the first person she’d seen in a week.”
Janice connected her with Awarua Social Services. While the kai was good, it was the whanaungatanga that made the difference.
“The food is incidental to the people”, says Janice, “Food is an essential but so is companionship, social interaction. For Koha Kai, everything we do is about relationships”.
Impact on disabled kaimahi
Closer to home, the trainees who usually work in the Koha Kai kitchens are safely in their homes. Most live alone and have either intellectual or multiple disabilities, so Janice keeps in touch along with disability services.
“People who are on the spectrum have a set way of doing things, a set way for their lives to be. So this has thrown them completely up in the air. Plus their biggest fear is isolation. Isolation leads to anxiety. And that creates all sorts of other health issues. So we need to stay close”.
Te Puni Kōkiri had only been supporting Koha Kai for under a year but once its Te Waipounamu regional kaimahi learned that Janice and her team were part of the COVID-19 emergency response, they got further support to Koha Kai quickly so that whānau especially in remote, isolated areas - got the help they needed.
Janice already has her head well into recovery. She has planted kai that will be ready for whatever lies ahead.
“That way in three months’ time we will be harvesting and can continue to feed people if the supply becomes more difficult to come by or more expensive”.
In the meantime the orders keep flooding in, the kitchen keeps pumping out meals and Janice hits the road again to serve both kai and her community.