The salt, sugar and fat-laden foods prevalent in our supermarkets may be cheap as chips, but there is a price to pay later - with poor health, reduced quality of life and a gargantuan tax bill for health services. Research points to it getting worse. Is it right to intervene, or is making sensible food choices down to the individual - as the current government asserts? The people Element spoke to believe the present state of affairs can be transformed. Here's how...
Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) spokesperson and Associate Professor at the University of Auckland's Faculty of Education Dr Mike O'Brien suggests that addressing the health of the nation starts by addressing poverty.
"The links between poverty, nutrition, obesity and health are fairly well established now. If we really are serious about addressing these issues then reducing levels of poverty is a critical part of that," he says.
O'Brien and University of Otago's Department of Public Health Associate Professor Louise Signal recommend:
• Increasing the minimum wage so people have enough money to feed their families
• Ensuring that beneficiaries get all their benefit entitlements
• Urgently progressing the 'loan shark legislation' in parliament, which limits the power of loan sharks to stop them exploiting poor families.
Getting the right food in school
High rates of poverty mean that 15 per cent of children go to school with empty lunchboxes. Providing breakfast for children improves educational outcomes, school attendance and behaviour in the classroom while reducing a child's risk of becoming overweight or obese.
Society is too quick to blame 'bad' parents or poor spending decisions for hungry children, states O'Brien, when affluent households spend proportionately more money on alcohol than low-income households and many parents go without food in order to ensure their children are fed.
The KickStart initiative has been providing breakfasts in decile one to four schools for five years. Government funding will see the programme rolled out to all schools that need it this year. Using a community partnership model, Fonterra and Sanitarium provide the milk and Weet-Bix and the school and the local community supply cutlery, a location and volunteers to run the breakfast club.
Founded in 2005, KidsCan works alongside 327 low-decile schools to provide food, shoes, socks, raincoats and hygiene products like nit combs. The charity aims to ensure poverty doesn't get in the way of a child's learning, confidence and success.
KidsCan recently secured 1.5 million dollars of government funding, spread over three years. In 2012 the charity distributed over 1.8m food items, 7000 pairs of shoes and 17,000 hand-knitted beanies. Donate, volunteer or sponsor a child here at KidsCan.
The assault on junk food
The University of Auckland's Dr Gerhard Sundborn is calling for a complete ban on sugary drinks. His research found that lurid-coloured fizzy drinks are the leading contributor of sugar to children's diets, accounting for 26 per cent of children's sugar consumption, and the second contributor for adults.
A 2012 University of Otago study found price strongly affected their popularity, a 10 per cent increase led to a 24 per cent fall in consumption.
The study also emphasised that a 10 per cent price reduction on the cost of fruit and vegetables would increase consumption by two per cent and eight per cent respectively, and that people from poorer backgrounds were more likely to change their eating habits because of taxes or subsidies.
International efforts have seen the banning of sugary drinks in school and on television in the U.K, and sugary-drink taxes established in France and Ireland. Since 2007, France has also required that all TV and radio food ads be accompanied by a message promoting exercise and healthy eating.
Signal suggests that other methods, such as zoning restrictions around schools, feeding children in schools, an easy-to-understand, traffic-light food labelling system and advertising and marketing restrictions, could also be implemented in line with overseas practices.
Sweden, Norway and Quebec for example, have banned food advertisements aired during children's programming and more than 30 countries, including Australia, Malaysia and Korea have laws limiting television advertising to children, including banning techniques such as the use of cartoon characters.
According to Signal, current obesity measures are woefully inadequate, and drastic measures are required. "Given the extent of the problem in New Zealand, we need to seriously consider a ban on junk food for kids."
Time to legislate?
Professor Jim Mann from the Edgar National Centre for Diabetes and Obesity Research (ENCDOR) says the anti-smoking campaign is a perfect model to adopt if we want to get serious about nutrition, health and obesity.
Smoking was outlawed from bars, restaurants, cafes, clubs and casinos in December 2004. These measures faced fierce opposition from the hospitality sector who claimed they would go bust and drink spiking and violence would spiral out of control. Their fears failed to eventuate and we are well on our way to becoming 'Smokefree by 2025'.
In June 2008, healthy food in schools was legislated as a part of the internationally acclaimed, comprehensive, cross-sector Healthy Eating Healthy Action (HEHA) legislation. Schools were instructed to make healthy food and beverages the sole options on school premises. Wraps and salads replaced pies and donuts, sausage sizzle fundraisers were demoted to a once-a-term affair and vending machines were given the boot.
In 2009, with the election of the National-led government, this clause was promptly removed. The Health Minister, Tony Ryall, claimed it was part of a "nanny-state agenda", and that schools had no right to be "food police". Schools were still required to teach about healthy eating under HEHA, but not to enable it.
The current governmental tack is to provide information for people to make informed choices about health and nutrition. Mann says this approach fails to recognise that some people have limited choices, and limited education with which to make the right choice.
"We already tell people they have to wear helmets on their bikes, we already tell people that they can't smoke in public places. We need to start legislating."
Education: Get involved
• Garden to Table works in 17 schools in Auckland and Christchurch. By establishing enviable vegetable gardens (with compost provided free by Living Earth) and kitchen units, children learn to grow, harvest, prepare and share seasonal dishes with classmates, teachers and volunteers. The programme has turned greens-hating children into salad-lovers and inspired children to take up the trowel at home. Learn more, donate or become a transport sponsor for the new Wynyard Quarter learning centre at gardentotable.org.nz
• Since 2010, Hand over a Hundy (HOAH) has challenged families to raise $100 by growing seasonal veggies and sponsoring the next family's veggie patch. Participants get all the garden basics plus a garden mentor for the year. The programme is active in backyards across Southland, Canterbury, Waikato and Auckland as well as in foster care homes and a young parent's college in Kimihia, where 15 young mums will learn how to grow healthy food for their families. Sponsor a family at handoverahundy.org.nz
• Toi Tangata is a by-Maori, for-Maori health initiative with on-hand Maori dietetics and nutritionists. More than 60 Maori community health workers have been trained by the organisation in the last six months to take healthy living messages, based on Maori values, back into their communities. The organisation has a host of Maori-focused resources, from cooking a 'healthy boil-up' to promoting the use of traditional foods like puha (watercress), seaweed and fish.
• The Food Switch app provides easy-to-understand, nutritional information about, and healthier alternatives to, 14,000 supermarket products based on their fat, sugar and salt content. Download at foodswitch.co.nz
• Pacific Peoples Health is a new free magazine launched as a flip-side publication with popular Pacific magazine SPASIFIK. It aims to create an awareness of health issues including diabetes, smoking and rheumatic fever to Auckland-based Pasifika. Grab a free copy at pacificpeopleshealth.co.nz