David Shearer: Focus on kids' nutrition key to healthier society

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New Zealand has 275,000 overweight and obese children. Photo / Thinkstock
New Zealand has 275,000 overweight and obese children. Photo / Thinkstock

Since my Food in Schools Bill - to provide food to lower-decile schools - was drawn out of the Parliamentary ballot in October, I've been rethinking this course of action.

My meetings with principals, doctors, charities and communities have convinced me that some important adjustments should be made to the bill.

My research took me to a wonderful school, Owairaka District School, where 8-year-old students served me a lunch of vegetarian pizza from their own pizza oven, salad from their garden, and muffins made with eggs from their chickens and honey from their hives.

Owairaka is a decile 2 school but the children are kept nourished and learning through this innovative garden-to-table programme.

But more critically, they are picking up the lifetime skills of gardening and food preparation - and they are doing it alongside family and community volunteers who also benefit.

It's win, win, win - so much better than a hand-out for the kids - and it raised a question I have grappled with since my bill was drawn.

Is it right to impose a one-size-fits-all solution on to every low-decile school in the form of a food hand-out?

There's an old saying: give someone a fish and it will feed them for a day; teach someone to fish and it will feed them for a lifetime.

Of course, we all agree that no child should be hungry at school. But what's missing is a programme that will not only fix that but also improve nutrition and ensure self-reliance.

Before coming into politics I ran huge feeding programmes for starving kids, including one for 30,000 children in Somalia.

Without that food, those children would have died. But the programme was always designed to be temporary. As soon as the crisis passed, the families moved on, relying on themselves.

My fear is that we will institutionalise dependence through relying solely on a feeding programme. We need to be far more forward-looking.

There's another critical need for a programme focused on nutrition. New Zealand has 275,000 overweight and obese children. Surely part of what we are teaching - in a practical way - should be around nutrition and good foods to eat.

Unfortunately, our current Government has done the opposite. In 2009, then Education Minister Anne Tolley removed the national guidelines to schools which stated that only healthy options should be available where food and beverages are sold at schools.

How can we teach our children about healthy eating while providing a canteen full of fat, sugar and salt? Unsurprisingly, our childhood obesity rates increased from 8 per cent in 2007 to 10 per cent in 2012.

Every principal I've spoken to who has banned fizzy drinks in their school has seen improvements in behaviour.

Few people are aware of the full extent of the problem. For example, I was unaware that the charity KidsCan donates nappies to schools for children who are so poorly nourished through eating the wrong foods that they have chronic constipation and leaky bowels. Imagine the embarrassment for those kids.

Poor nutrition makes our kids susceptible to obesity, diabetes, iron deficiency, anaemia, cellulitis, impetigo, kidney and bone disease, infections and pneumonia. We pay for that through our health budget - and our taxes.

My bill originally aimed to legislate for food to be available in every decile 1, 2 and 3 school that wants it, so poorer communities can have confidence their children won't be hungry at school.

That's a start, but I'm going back to the drawing board so we can address the issues of nutrition and encourage self-reliance. We have lost the basic skills of how to garden and provide for ourselves.

So my aim is that my Food in Schools Bill will put resources into schools to help teach those simple skills, and enable kids to eat the food they grow themselves and understand a healthy diet.

I want to see parents and communities given the support they need to look after their kids and not simply depend on a government feeding scheme.

David Shearer is MP for Mt Albert and Labour Party spokesman for Foreign Affairs and Energy and Resources.

- NZ Herald

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