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Te Kura Reo Rua O Waikirikiri

I thought this was a story about zero waste school lunches.

What I quickly realised is that the transformations at Te Kura Reo Rua O Waikirikiri are much bigger than waste minimisation (although that is definitely happening). This is indeed a story about zero waste…of people.

Wind back to 2020 and the chaos of the covid pandemic. Staff noticed an increase of issues amongst the tamariki, including self-harm and depression. While the wellbeing plan was already in formation, two new personnel were added to the team to put the vision into action.

Experienced Teacher, Koka Megan Windybank has focused on supporting students and teachers social and emotional learning for the past three years. Koka Tui Keenan initially focused on whānau and now works as the school counsellor. Alongside the school social worker Koka Rangi Houia, the special education needs coordinator and Principal Koka Yolanda Julies, they form the school wellbeing team.

All teachers and schools across Aotearoa are aware of Sir Mason Durie’s Te Whare Tapa Wha Model.

This is a model where the person is symbolised by a wharenui (meeting house) with four walls. The wharenui walls are made up of:

● Taha tinana – physical wellbeing

● Taha hinengaro – mental wellbeing

● Taha whānau – family, community, and social wellbeing

● Taha wairua – spiritual wellbeing.

The whenua (land) forms the foundation.

Te Kura Reo Rua o Waikirikiri has an intimate appreciation and understanding, that if those four walls of the whare are not strong or nurtured, the house will not stand. That is, the child is unwell and not prepared for learning.

So how does this school address wellbeing? They have resourced a wellbeing team to provide wrap-around support, provide focused professional development around brain development, especially children’s brains and emotional intelligence. Trauma-informed care. Mindfulness and Yoga. Play therapy. Healthy kai and mahinga kai (collection and harvesting). Physical exercise and repetitive movements such as Mau Rakau.

Other schools often have a counsellor that flies in for the day from another region. This school has a counsellor that is connected to the children and the whānau and approaches health through connection to Papatūānuku. A sensory garden is under development, especially for tamariki on the Autism Spectrum. Native nursery and fruit trees. Learning through play.

The list is extensive and impressive and the school is often requested to share their approach with other teaching and health professionals.

It is hard to encapsulate how profound the wellbeing programme is at Te Kura Reo Rua O Waikirikiri and to include the many strands that are in play. But perhaps a spotlight on their kai-based initiatives can give some insight.

Previously, 180 school lunches were delivered each day from a Gisborne-based catering provider. There were high volumes of packaging waste and meals that weren’t eaten.

At the same time, through the whānau wellbeing programme, parents were engaged in cooking classes, home gardens and hunting programmes and the school knew they had a group of mamas with the skills to deliver the school lunch programme. The cooking tech space was easily upgraded to become a commercial kitchen and 12 months ago three mamas were employed.

The Mamas understand what the children like to eat and can gently expand their taste buds with new foods that the whānau are also learning to include in home meals through cooking classes at the school and online. Tamariki deliver these meals to pakeke (elders) in the community.

There’s an effortless connection between the kitchen and kids as it is some of the students’ mamas who are making the meals. The children know the mamas, see them everyday when they collect the meals, and can even pop in and ask for seconds. Sometimes children help prepare the lunches too. They grow the lettuces for their sandwiches and are responsible for food waste (one pig bucket each week) to become compost and worm food in the school gardens.

Beyond the school lunches there is an exciting new initiative ‘Kete’, a ‘My Food Bag’ type subscription based at Waikirikiri School using local veges and venison. The seniors help to pack three healthy meals into reusable chilly bags every Wednesday and are often involved in cooking the meals at home.

Back to the waste, the caretaker was animated as he spoke of massive reductions. There are no uneaten meals. The reusable containers are easily collected up onsite and take only half an hour to wash after lunch. And yes there is still small amounts of plastic waste and packaging.

I didn’t get into the details of how much because it doesn’t really matter. As zero waste chef Anne Marie Bonneau said, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly”.

Rick Thorpe is a zero waste guru in Aotearoa and his view is that waste is a social issue rather than an engineering one. I could feel his words resonating as my time at Waikirikiri unfolded. An engineering approach might have looked in the bins and seen high volumes of divertable materials, focused on processes, bins and signage. A social approach focuses on the connection between the children, the school and the lunches, which is the pathway Wairikikiri have undertaken.

As Koka Megan explained, “We’ve seen huge shifts because we have changed our approach and our response. We don’t have school yard fighting, children were throwing chairs around the room, all that carry on…..we just don’t see that now” What I did see was children hugging teachers, a joyful staffroom, mamas singing as they prepared meals, planting, colour, growth and health…..all wrapped up by physical, emotional, spiritual and whānau wellbeing.

Zero waste… of people.

Story by Jo McKay

Photograph by Tom Teutenberg


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