I've been thinking a lot about kids, lately, and what we as a society owe them.
This train of thought started at the FIZZ (Fighting Sugar in Soft Drinks) symposium, when I listened to paediatric dentist Dr Katie Bach tell of kids appearing in her clinic nursing serious dental abscesses; in constant pain from teeth so decayed they have to be removed under general anaesthetic. Bach described her worst day: the time she removed a total of 61 teeth from six children.
We owe our kids a food environment where nutritionally devoid, sugary drinks and foods aren't causing so much damage.
I felt an overwhelming mix of sadness, anger and shame, too, reading the recently released report from the Child Poverty Action Group on food insecurity. Titled "Aotearoa, the land of the long wide bare cupboard", the report paints a bleak picture of life in this country – where we pride ourselves on the bounty and quality of our food – for kids unlucky enough to be born into families in poverty, where good wholesome food on the table daily is far from certain. Right now, around one in five children lives with severe to moderate food insecurity.
Dr Rebekah Graham of Massey University describes heartbreaking situations based on her interviews with people facing food insecurity in the Waikato. The reality for these families is parents often going without food so their kids can eat or take lunch to school. It's having to buy the cheapest, most filling, least healthy foods to make a meagre food budget stretch. It's buying no fresh food – just things that will last in the cupboard as long as possible. And it's having to eat food that's barely edible; food that is described in the report as "dated, rotten, or unpleasant-tasting ... as part of everyday survival".
These situations don't just cause rumbling tummies. They cause long-term health effects including poorer outcomes across the board: health problems in later life; nutritional deficiencies; mental health issues; social isolation and diseases of malnutrition, including obesity.
We owe our kids a country where every one of them knows they'll have nutritious food to help them grow and learn every day.
In her section of the report, Professor Elaine Rush from AUT says we shouldn't have food poverty in a land of plenty. We export enough food, in terms of energy, to feed four times our population: 20 million people. We also import enough food energy to feed our own population twice over.
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Professor Rush calls for a national food strategy to be developed urgently.
Currently, she notes, no ministry in government has the explicit responsibility of ensuring New Zealanders have access to a food supply that meets the Ministry of Health's food-based dietary guidelines. This, she says, needs to change.
There's an opportunity for that right now. We have a budget process that is aimed towards improving Kiwis' wellbeing. We can have, if we want it, a whole-of-government approach that puts wellbeing - especially that of our children - first. We owe that to our kids, don't we?