Sustainability concepts and the food cycle are being taught in authentic ways at Lower Hutt’s Epuni School. An old soccer field has been transformed into a thriving orchard and vegetable garden that aims to provide lunch for the students of Epuni School and their families.

The Common Unity Project Aotearoa is based at the low-decile public school, which has a roll of around 85 students. Common Unity is a charitable trust that encompasses a number of projects, including Koha Kitchen, where children and community members cook and eat together; Project Sunflower, a seed-sharing programme; a Bike Library; and Close Knit – a community knitting project that has resulted in a new generation of young knitters, not to mention some uniquely colourful blankets.

The Common Unity Project’s major focus is a one-acre garden behind the school, laden with herbs, flowers, fruit, and vegetables. By harvesting the garden’s seasonal offerings and combining these with donated dry goods, project coordinator Julia Milne says there is enough food to provide lunch to every student, as well as their parents and other community members who want to get involved.

The project was originally ignited by a friendship between Julia and Epuni School principal Bunny Willing. The pair had often talked about building a community project from the family-focused school base. It was this supportive environment that allowed the Common Unity idea to grow from a seedling to a fully-formed organism that continues to shift and change.

Julia says the school community is not financially wealthy but time-rich – creating the perfect environment for such a project. Parents and grandparents get involved as they can; helping to build paths and garden structures, collect seeds in autumn, or work in the kitchen.

On the morning I visited, the Koha Kitchen was buzzing with eight young children and four parents busily chopping and stirring. On the menu: brown rice pilaf with kale and silverbeet and steamed broccoli and carrots on the side. There was also grapefruit and lemon curd to spread on toast.

It’s Julia’s hope that soon a larger Koha Kitchen will be built, to create more room for the cooking and preserving that goes on year-round at Epuni School, and to allow more room for storage and community workshops. Such facilities would be made from recycled shipping containers, says Julia, in keeping with the spirit of the entire project: using what’s available, where they are.

The Common Unity Project is integrated by each class teacher into their term plan. Julia meets with each at the beginning of the school year to tweak the programme and ensure that each student will spend at least 45 minutes each week in the garden, on top of extra, optional sessions. In the summer, the garden is an ‘open access area’, with children being able to freely play, work, or eat to their heart’s content.

Catherine Field-Dodgson works together with Julia Milne and is also the coordinator of Project Sunflower, which sees children growing flowers and saving the seeds. She says in the summer it’s pleasing to see the children play in the garden.

“They are welcome to eat their lunch from there, if they want to,” she says. “Many eat handfuls of tomatoes or strawberries.”

In addition to the edible rewards, there are many lessons to be found inside the garden borders.

“Our kids are inheriting some significant environmental issues from us, and we’ve now reached a pivotal point in our society where we have to make some major changes, for their sake. I see this project as helping to foster a strong community, and it’s empowering because it’s about using our hands and our time, not money.”

The actual learning from the plants takes into account the 12-month cycle of the year, with its seasonal changes. Students from the junior classes help to count the seeds into packets (heirloom varieties are generally used), and Julia says they learn quickly to identify the different characteristics of each one.

“You can line up the students after their first year at school and they will be able to differentiate all the different kinds of seeds we use in the garden,” she says.

From the sorting of seeds to the raising of seedlings, nurturing the growing plants to harvesting, saving seed, and eventually cooking with the produce, each year level takes part in the process.

Tending a worm farm and making compost is also an integral part of the cycle, and the students are fully involved in these, too.

“It’s really important to us that these facets are completely authentic,” says Julia. “We don’t want to be simply telling them about compost; the idea is that we actually tend to the compost every day and see its effect on the garden.”

The school garden’s impact has grown. Project volunteers have helped to build vegetable beds at parents’ homes, and workshops held at Epuni School have encouraged the sustainability ethic.

Mindful of a young generation growing up in a changing world, Julia says the Common Unity Project aims to equip the students with vital skills.

“Our kids are inheriting some significant environmental issues from us, and we’ve now reached a pivotal point in our society where we have to make some major changes, for their sake. I see this project as helping to foster a strong community, and it’s empowering because it’s about using our hands and our time, not money.”

Julia says her aim is to roll the project out to other schools.

“People come here to learn. Money is not something that this community has a lot of. But we can be rich by learning how to grow our food and use the things around us.”

Poodle fluff and carpet: using a community to teach sustainability

  • The Lower Hutt community contributes to Epuni School’s project in the following ways:
  • Untreated wood, used for garden bed edging – from Western Milling.
  • Carpet pieces, used to make our garden paths – from Carpet Court (about a tonne).
  • Recycled bricks from local building projects.
  • Tyres, for garden wall edging – from Naenae Tyre Court.
  • River stones, used for edging – from Hutt River, sourced by the Department of Corrections team.
  • Seaweed, used for compost – collected from Petone Beach by the Department of Corrections team.
  • Horse manure, used for compost – collected from the riding school at Mangaroa Valley.
  • Pokie machine perspex screens, used for glasshouse windows – donated.
  • Coffee sacks, used around trees as weed matting – from Caffe L’Affare.
  • Coffee grinds, used for soil conditioner – from Alicetown Espresso.
  • Poodle fluff, used as composting material – from local dog groomer Dogs-R-Us.
  • Wood chipping, used as mulch – from Hutt City Council.
  • Waste food for community compost – from Lower Hutt Foodbank.
  • Lawn clippings, for mulch – donated.
  • Cardboard boxes, for weed suppressor – local shops.
  • Spent grain from brewery, used as soil conditioner – from Great Expectations.

From pokie machine screens to miniature glasshouses

When pokie machine games are updated, the thick Perspex screens are discarded. Julia has arranged for these to be delivered to the school, diverting them from landfill. A group of crafty dads have been fashioning these into triangular structures, perfect for sheltering small seedlings from the Wellington wind. Some of these have been sold locally and others are in use at Epuni School.

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