Hāngi chef making 1000 meals a week during Auckland's lockdown to help those struggling

As Tāmaki Makaurau contemplates more home cooking for a bit longer, an Aotearoa hāngi chef fired up his pit and got to making 1000 hearty meals a week since the city went into lockdown last month.

Hāngi master Rewi Spraggon wanted to ease the pressure on food banks and kitchens, serving up the traditional feast to those living under the radar.

"It's the oldest dish in Aotearoa. Everyone should be able to have a good meal, homeless or whatever," Spraggon tells The Hui.

"Whether you're royalty or living under a bridge, it doesn't matter. We put the same aroha into every meal, and the way we cook the kai, that's the way we've been taught, and that's the way I'll teach people."

Spraggon gets up at 5am to begin the hāngi process, which takes around six hours. On the menu are seven options, including chicken, pork, kumara, pumpkin, potato, cabbage, and all-important stuffing.

"The beauty of hāngi is that it's a community kai and that's why our old people cooked it because you could feed a lot of people with a small budget, that's why we do it," Spraggon adds.

Spraggon estimates he will end up serving up around 5000 meals during this lockdown, using his established networks to help fund the initiative.

"I was looking at 700 meals a week, but it has actually gone up to 1000 meals a week. The generosity of people has been great, from sourcing putea from the likes of Minister of Māori Development Willie Jackson and Associate Minister for Housing with responsibility of addressing homelessness Marama Davidson. We've also got Britomart, Māori-owned business Kauta, and my business that have given time," he says.

"There's a lot of good people out there, there's a lot of good producers and suppliers that are giving kai."

But the initiative hasn't been without its hitches, with wild weather causing flash flooding in west Auckland two weeks ago.

"We had probably the biggest storm in 50 years and it washed out our roads. I didn't realise how bad the storm was, and I went out and there was no way you could get out in the morning. The road was flooded in about four places past the window in my truck.

"Luckily it had dropped quite fast, but it's a bit late - once you put down a hāngi you've got to use it. So I managed to get out and drive through a flood that was probably a good 800 metres, sort of guessing where the road was. You know the old story - the hāngi must get through."

What surprised Spraggon was seeing firsthand the need out in the community.

"I know the struggles and the hardship, we've just seen it increase and increase. Twenty years ago people were too shy to ask for kai, too whakamā, but now it's a different story, families are really depending on food banks."

Rewi Spraggon and his mouth-watering hāngi.
Rewi Spraggon and his mouth-watering hāngi. Photo credit: The Hui

Ngā Whare Waatea in Māngere has set up a food bank and it's one of the places Spraggon drops off his mouth-watering hāngi.

"Our usual numbers are roughly about 40 food parcels a day, but we are now distributing about 140 food parcels a day in this lockdown," says Ngā Whare Waatea Marae's essential services manager Puhihuia Wade.

Spraggon says the foodbanks are really struggling.

"The food's going as fast as it's coming in, so I want to try and help relieve a little bit of that pressure."

While his sons have helped him prepare food and deliver within their own bubble, a team of volunteers have also been assisting by packing and distributing the kai. Many of them are well aware of the hardship of sleeping rough.

"A lot of our people that have come out of prison - women and male - and a lot of them want to turn their lives around."

The chef has a personal insight into why some people choose to live a life on the street.

"I had a cousin who passed away about four years ago. He was living on the streets and a lot of me and whanau offered accommodation for him, but he didn't accept any offer from our whanau. Unfortunately it took a heavy toll on him and he died of a heart attack. He was only about 45," he says.

"They're a hidden part of our community that a lot of us don't know of but the more we can support them, it could change their lives too. Just giving them a bit of a boost in life, a step up is a big thing."

During the lockdown, Spraggon has donated much of his time to the kaupapa.

"Just to shop for 1000 people is pretty much a full day. The cooking is a seven-hour process from setting the pits up, to lighting the fire to burying the kai.

"Once the fire has started, we've got three hours to prep 350 meals, and then get that ready, put it down, then another three hours.. within that three hours getting ready for the setup. It's ongoing, you never stop. By the time you finish the day, it's a 12-hour day.

"This is the hidden part of our community and it's forgotten, but at the end of the day, they're our whanaunga. They whakapapa to the same maunga, the same awa. Just going into these places and looking at these people smiling, it just makes it really worthwhile what you're doing.

"I think that's the biggest gratitude for me and my team is watching people enjoy your kai. I suppose for me I guess it's just more of a driver to actually do more when you actually see it. Just keep the mahi going."

Made with support from Te Māngai Pāho and NZ On Air.

Hāngi chef making 1000 meals a week during Auckland's lockdown to help those struggling