A tireless community organiser from Southland has won the Anzac of the Year Award.

Barbara Cunningham, from Mataura, northeast of Invercargill, was presented with the annual award at Government House in Wellington this evening.

A former midwife, Barbara Cunningham has become known in the township for setting up a hugely successful community garden which has a special focus on helping those who cannot afford or grow vegetables.

Ms Cunningham was a reluctant award-winner.


She said she nearly hung up when Government House rang to inform her of her achievement.

"I told them they had the wrong person," she said. "It took a day or two for it to sink in."

Mataura is not a flash town, she said. The school is Decile 2, the population is transient, and many people couldn't provide for themselves.

The garden, and the community spirit it had generated, was making a little bit of difference, she said. It's still "poor in money", she said, but "there's a spirit in the town and it's growing."

Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae, who presented the award, said her citation told a story of someone who had taken on the responsibility to make her community better.

"Your care and concern for others, your commitment to your community, your ability to bring people together and your courage in seeing projects through makes you the embodiment of the Anzac spirit," he said.

People in the Mataura township, population 1500, had described her as "the backbone that every community needs" and "a god-sent doer in a sea of talkers".

Sir Jerry said the Anzac of the Year prize recognised ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

"It's an ethos that may have been forged in battle but still offers enormous value in 21st century New Zealand," he said.

Barbara Cunningham's citation said she had lived in Mataura for 33 years.

She developed the idea of a community garden out of concern that many people, in particular poorer households, did not know how to grow plants.

With support from council and local business, the garden has now grown into an institution and an important source of groceries for those that cannot afford them at the supermarket.

The Mataura Community Garden later took over the provision of Meals on Wheels in the town after discovering that the meals were pre-made and frozen before delivery.

The service now provides fresh, locally made meals and has been extended to the whole community, not just elderly residents.

"Barbara lives her life in the spirit of the ANZAC," the citation said.

"She is a community minded, compassionate, driven individual."

The award is given each year to a New Zealander who "embodies the Anzac spirit".

Last year's recipient was women's rights campaigner Louise Nicholas.