Ōhaeawai is your typical small Northland town boasting a modest dairy, butcher and garage, along with the customary historic hotel.

But just down the road at the local preschool, young children are learning a big life lesson - how to give unconditionally to others.

It started with the installation of a "blessing box" constructed by one of the dads and located on the roadside of the Ōhaeawai Community Preschool.

Kids and parents filled it with gifts for those less fortunate to lift their spirits over the festive season.

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Sianella Nield, dressed as Santa, with donated gifts for the community at the Ōhaeawai blessing box. Photo / supplied
Sianella Nield, dressed as Santa, with donated gifts for the community at the Ōhaeawai blessing box. Photo / supplied

The blessing box has now become a permanent fixture and is regularly stocked with fresh fruit and vegetables and non-perishable items like baked beans, Weetbix and honey.

In true pātaka kai fashion, the food is donated by parents of the play group and fellow residents so others can take what they need.

"We wanted to do what we could for the community," centre manager Liz Owen said.

"It doesn't take much to brighten people's day, we wanted to give because it makes a difference to people's lives. There's a lot of people that struggle on a daily basis."

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The Ōhaeawai preschool's construction is among many pātaka kai – the Māori term for a food storehouse or pantry – popping up around Northland.

Whangārei woman Lexia Popata opened the city's first on Raurimu Ave in 2018.

There are now pātaka kai at Rust Ave Medical Centre, next to Open Arms on Robert St, at Habitat for Humanity, Kererū Kindy on Bank St, and several in Tikipunga, Raumanga and Ōtangarei.

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Onerahi has three – on Waimahanga Rd, Kokich Cres and Raurimu Ave.

In the Far North there are free food pantries in Rawene, Whangaroa, Kawakawa, Kaikohe, Kaitāia, Moerewa – and now Ōhaeawai.

The Pātaka Kai Open Street Pantry Movement was started by Swanie Nelson who set up a stall in Ōtara in August 2018 as a way of helping feed and strengthen communities and encourage co-sharing between neighbours.

There are now 117 around the country and they are open 24/7, with no appointments or form-filling required.

The philosophy is simple: "Take what you need and leave what you can".

Pātaka Kai Open Street Pantries spokeswoman Candice Luke said they are "absolutely making a difference" in Northland.

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"We get feedback all the time via Facebook, email and our website, and it's really positive," she said.

Brigid Sinclair with some food donations in the new Morningside pātaka kai. Photos / John Stone
Brigid Sinclair with some food donations in the new Morningside pātaka kai. Photos / John Stone

"They give people another option to share with their neighbours and get to know each other and make a difference.

"Considering there are so many people who fall through the gaps and Winz is often confusing and stressful for people in hardship, it's good to have another option for people at their wits end and who just need a feed."

Lack of employment opportunities and the "P" epidemic are affecting all areas of society and increasing the need for support like pātaka kai, she said.

"In Northland in particular you get a lot of people wondering if it's sustainable up there because of the lack of jobs.

"I have family who have moved home to Mangonui in the last year and some are really struggling. They want to be back home on the land but there's not enough jobs. Some are considering coming back to the city because there's more chance of getting a wage."

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The median weekly income for all working-age people in Northland, including those on benefits, is $512, according to the latest figures from Statistics New Zealand.

The median market rent for a three-bedroom house in Whangārei is around $450 per week.

In the Bay of Islands it's $480, Kaitāia is $340 and in rural Far North it's $360.

Ōhaeawai Community Preschool centre manager Liz Owen makes sure the pātaka kai is regularly stocked. Photo / Jenny Ling
Ōhaeawai Community Preschool centre manager Liz Owen makes sure the pātaka kai is regularly stocked. Photo / Jenny Ling

Whangarei Budgeting Service senior financial mentor Anna McIntosh said increasing rental costs have "pushed the price of living out of control".

Rentals in Whangārei are "just about unattainable for most people on a low income", she said.

"There are more people using the service that need supplementary food, we have a fair amount of beneficiaries that are constantly in deficit every week.

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"Quite often someone will have a benefit with $50 left over, that's for food, gas, the doctor...something has to give, so when they top up their phone, that's $20 out of their grocery money."

"This isn't just for people on benefits, it's people working as well. We're seeing an increase of people across the board trying to live and pay the rent."

Whangārei woman Brigid Sinclair is pleased the community is supporting the pātaka kai she set up outside the Korna Store in Morningside in January.

People are taking the food, and she's starting to see others stopping by with donations.

'People can be shy about going and getting stuff, but it's there for whoever needs it. Nothing stays in there very long."

But there is a need to educate the public about the free food pantries, Sinclair said.

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One time someone donated a broken jam jar which attracted ants and others have left packets of half-opened food.

"People started to put out boxes of shoes and clothes, so we put a sign up," Sinclair said.

"It's educating people as to what's needed and getting them to keep thinking about it. But mostly people are really good.

"There are a lot of people out there - maybe it's because they've got a big vet bill or people who are struggling constantly because their income is not big enough – that actually do need the help."

The Rawene food pantry is one of many scattered around Northland. Photo / file
The Rawene food pantry is one of many scattered around Northland. Photo / file

Sinclair said it's about changing the culture around giving so people see it as part of their routine.

"It's putting it into our regular lives so we're aware there are people in the community that are more vulnerable.

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"It's a wonderful community builder. If you can leave something, know that your community thanks you. If we work together, we can make sure everyone has access to a meal."

McIntosh said she read about the opening of the Morningside pantry in the Northern Advocate and thought it was "wonderful".

The food pantries are a good supplement to the food banks run by the Salvation Army, she said.

"I hope they work because what an amazing concept," McIntosh said.

"I hope the community gives back and we have enough people that are in a situation to give back. At end of the day food is an essential item that everyone needs."

Luke, originally from Hihi, said the group recently linked up with Food Rescue Northland which will ensure the pantries are fully utilised and sustainable.

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Her advice to others thinking about running one is to have a non-judgmental attitude, and remain optimistic and resilient.

"Know you're doing something positive for your neighbours. When we have the opportunity to witness people using them it makes our day."