High school dropout to community hero: Meet Swanie Nelson

Jessica Satherley
High school dropout to community hero: Meet Swanie Nelson
Swanie Nelson been working in her community for two decades

Though Women of Influence winner Swanie Nelson’s community pantries have been a great success, she still recognises some people experience an element of shame using them. 

To address this, she’s setting up a “social supermarket” where goods will be bought rather than given, but at an affordable price and with a focus on health. 

“There’s a Māori word called ‘whakamā’, which means shame, and there’s still a sense of shame sometimes in using a free food pantry,” Swanie says. 

She is currently working on creating a social supermarket, which would initially be launched in her home community of Ōtara, South Auckland. 

“The social supermarket would give people a sense of dignity by allowing the community to buy good quality, affordable, healthy kai in Ōtara. 

“We don’t have a lot of healthy food options in Ōtara and we do have a lot of health issues, like diabetes, in the community. 

“There are also issues around people being able to travel or commute to get to the places that have healthy food options,” Swanie says. 

Swanie’s social supermarkets would also be designed to create local employment and upskilling opportunities for the community. 

Swanie became involved in community projects almost two decades ago, after dropping out of high school and starting work with an international aid and development agency. 

“It opened my eyes to poverty and inequality, which was on a different level in other countries. 

“I spent a lot of time in South America, on dirt floors with families who had next to nothing, but were fulfilled. 

“They were supported largely by the organisation I was working with, which provided education, food and supplies.   

“I saw that with a few support mechanisms, the changes that it made and joy that they had, really opened my eyes to what we needed to do back in my home community of Ōtara,” she says. 

Swanie became an active resident in her community soon after and started the open street pantry movement eight years ago. 

“I have two daughters at primary school level, and I see some of their friends coming over to our house who have a lot of food insecurity. 

“There are issues with families not having access to food grants or work and income support. 

“A lot of these families are struggling with the system.  Which is why we created Pātaka Kai food pantries in Ōtara and placed them within 2km of each area, so people could walk easily to each food pantry. 

“Within six months we had more than 60 pantries, which is really reflective of the economic situation we’re facing right now,” she says. 

So, where do the food donations come from?   

They crowd source from fruit trees, gather excess waste from food markets, or wrongly packaged items that can’t be resold at markets, as well as collecting produce from community gardens and people’s donations.    

Swanie is expecting the first container of food to be ready for Ōtara’s inaugural social supermarket at the end of November. 

After winning Westpac’s 2019 Women of Influence Community Hero Award, Swanie says: “My goal is to just see our people thriving within their lives.” 

She has also recently been sworn in as a local board member for Ōtara-Paptoetoe. 

“I’ve always been a grassroots community worker, but now I want to make decisions in the wider community,” she says. 

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