Advent 4

Our Food Bank is for anyone who is hungry

Most days, Aarav steps out his front door and jumps across the rickety planks that protect residents from the swamp below.  He is heading to school 1.5 kilometres away.

Today the smile on his face is bright. Not only is this the last day of the school week, but it is the day he will receive a nutritious lunch. His tummy will be full and he will have energy to learn.

Aarav lives in the Nanuku Settlement, home to 300 families on the outskirts of Suva.  He shares a tiny home, made of scavenged timber and corrugated iron, with his mother, Sheila, and three sisters.  In Nanuku, the sound of the ocean is constant – sometimes waves lap against the floorboards of their home.  The smell of the swamp is always present.

Some days there is not enough food and Aarav and his family go hungry.  Life could be tough before but with the Covid-19 pandemic, it has become harder.  Sheila is worried about the future.  Without tourism, much of the economy has disappeared.

For Aarav hope has come in the form of the Pacific Conference of Churches’ Food Bank – a bank for the people, grown as a model to be copied – and the Vunilagi Book Club based in a church near Nanuku.  Three days a week, he races to the local church knowing he can get a free lunch.

About 30 children attend the Book Club each Saturday where they can learn to read in English, Fiji’s official language.  English is a second – sometimes third – language for children living in the settlement. Reading is just one of the problems. Food for school lunches is a more pressing need in a community in which parents have been laid off as the economy shrinks.

“We’re so grateful that our children can go to school and have a healthy meal.  If the kids don’t have lunch, other children make fun of them and they don’t feel like going to class,” says Sheila his mother.

To support the children, PCC staff have planted tomatoes, cabbages, cauliflower, beans and cucumber in a garden next door to the Education Ministry headquarters, across the road from the Office of the Prime Minister and in plain sight of the United Nations agencies. Every Wednesday afternoon they work in their downtown garden, sharing produce, seeds and garden advice to anyone who needs them.  Their beautiful garden is an expression of their faith and a source of food for school lunches.  Sometimes there are eggs, sausages and the occasional chicken to add to the meal.

Food is one of the most basic human rights.  It is a gift to be shared and enjoyed.  We can make sure children have food and challenge economic systems that make people hungry.  Every time PCC gives Aarav food, love goes around.  PCC is spreading the gardening message so families can feed themselves no matter what happens.  With more love, justice can grow.

Support the 2020 Christmas Appeal to give hungry families like Aarav’s good food and the basics of a sustainable life.

Informal Settlements in Fiji

The Nanuku Settlement has risen in a mangrove swamp on the outer edge of Vatuwaqa, a residential and commercial sub-division on the outskirts of the city.  Most adults in Nanuku are engaged in menial labour and find it difficult to put enough food on the table in the best of times. With unemployment forced by Covid-19, the task has become even more difficult.  Many of the homes lack electricity or running water and in some cases are surrounded by rubbish and open sewers.

In recent decades, more Fijians have settled in urban areas in what are often known locally as ‘squatter settlements’.  Unable to find adequate housing families have constructed homes on land that is not their own.  In the greater Suva area, there are 117 informal settlements like Nanuku.  Housing is substandard, but that does not mean the residents do not take pride in maintaining their homes.  Services like clean water are often minimal.  At any time families could be evicted and most struggle to eat adequately.  Already working for low wages or in the informal sector, Covid-19 and the collapse of the tourism sector have made their precarious living exponentially harder.  Overcrowding, poor sanitation and the lack of good hygiene make families more susceptible to disease.

In July, an announcement was made about resettling the families from Nanuku.

Give Food.  Support the Christmas Appeal.

Pacific Conference of Churches

Formed in 1966, the Pacific Conference of Churches brings together 30 member churches from 18 countries and territories across the region.  It is a place where Pacific people can make decisions about their own future, develop their own theologies and actions, and work together for justice.  Programmatic decisions are made at its five yearly Assembly.

The current priorities of PCC are:

  • responding to climate change
  • supporting self-determination
  • eradicating gender-based violence
  • empowering young people
  • building better relations between faith groups.

The PCC Food and Seed Bank

The PCC Food and Seed Bank has been developed on land it owns in central Suva.  It is assisting, a local climate justice group, by sharing resources and land for another garden.  They want to grow food security across the Pacific.  With their own garden, people will no longer be hungry and can eat healthier food.  They can grow the traditional foods that use less water and are more likely to survive disaster and drought.

Head of the PCC Food and Seed Bank initiative Frances Namoumou says it is important to plant seeds in the minds of organisations, particularly the church, around sustainable, healthy food.

“The Food and Seed Bank initiative is actually a call to people of faith to plant vegetables, fruit and root crops and share what they have with those most in need.  If we claim to be Christians, let’s walk the talk. Plant and share food and become miracle workers in the lives of others.  Hopefully, the extension of this project will see job creation, food for the needy and ensure responsible use of nature,’’ says Frances.

Spreading the Food Bank message

A similar project has been rolled out in Tonga by its National Council of Churches under General Secretary, Reverend Ikani Tolu.   With land provided by the Free Wesleyan Church in Tonga and funding from the PCC, young men have turned vacant land into thriving food gardens.  PCC will fund projects in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu which will allow churches to build a supply of healthy seeds and planting material for immediate response after disasters.

A series of Food and Seed Banks will be created in the islands to provide additional food during Covid-19. Food theft is becoming a problem in the Solomon Islands with people being repatriated from the capital, Honiara, after losing their jobs as the economy slows down.

PCC General Secretary Rev James Bhagwan says that while there is an immediate benefit from the project, it also laid the platform for biblical lessons around stewardship.

“We need to show that churches have foresight and can rely on the land to prepare ahead for whatever disasters may eventuate.  In the islands we will gradually move towards the traditional resilient crops – yams and sweet potato – which can be stored for longer periods of time.  Planting material for these plants will be gathered, distributed and planted with the crops harvested and stored before going into the next cycle of planting.’’

The ultimate goal is for churches which own vast tracts of land in Melanesia and Polynesia to turn these assets into plantations for the people and lead their countries into food security.

“By the time Covid-19 passes and the tourists come back to the Pacific, our people should have planted enough not only for themselves but also to supply hotels and resorts,’’ says James.

Vunilagi Book Club

The Vunilagi Book Club which Aarav attends is based in the local church and PCC Child Safety Officer, Adi Mariana Waqa, leads a group of volunteers who teach the Nanuku children to read.  This programme is open to all primary school students in the settlement regardless of ethnicity or religion.  Mariana approached the PCC to help feed the children as finances became tighter for parents.

“All we ask is that the students turn up in uniform and collect their lunches before going to school,” Mariana said.

“As long as they go to school, the kids get free lunches which include vegetables and fruit.’’

The response from the community has been great with a number of mothers volunteering to prepare and pack the lunches as their contribution to the project.  With more parents being laid off, it is possible that the lunch programme will need to be extended to feed more children.

Give Food.  Support the Christmas Appeal.

Thanks to Netani Rika from the Pacific Conference of Churches for collecting these stories and images.

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