Rotorua couple Marama and Wi Renata have had not just one but two fights on their hands since their young son choked on apple at daycare, leaving him severely brain damaged. Life will never be the same again for little Neihana, but the family are close to winning their long battle with the Ministry of Education to help ensure the same thing doesn't happen to another child. Kelly Makiha finds out how Neihana's case will soon change food guidelines for all early childhood centres in New Zealand.
It has been a heartbreaking battle for the family of Neihana Renata.
The 5-year-old was left severely brain-damaged after choking on apple at his Rotorua daycare.
But now the family can celebrate a victory after spending countless hours battling food safety guidelines for early childhood centres.
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The Ministry of Education has announced it will review the criteria of serving and preparing food at all early childhood centres throughout New Zealand.
It means certain high-risk choking foods will be banned and there will be clear guidelines on how others should be served.
In the past, the ministry has only recommended early childhood centres follow the Ministry of Health's guidelines, which states foods such as cut-up apple shouldn't be served to youngsters.
If the proposed changes go through, all early childhood centres would need to follow the guidelines.
The Rotorua Daily Post reported Neihana's tragedy in April - just over a year after the then 3-year-old choked on the apple at Little Lights Kindergarten.
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In April, the ministry said it would not change its policy, meaning early childhood centres could continue to feed high-risk foods to children.
Neihana went from being a chatty and active little boy with his twin sister, Aotea, to being unable to talk or move as a result of being starved of oxygen for 30 minutes.
Neihana's mother, doctor Marama Renata, and her husband, Wi, have since been on a mission to make the Ministry of Education enforce the Ministry of Health's guidelines to protect other children.
In April, they spoke publicly about Neihana for the first time in the hope their tragedy would trigger change.
Renata said she was bitterly disappointed at the lack of action. However, since then education secretary Iona Holsted flew to Rotorua to meet the Renatas and had "productive" meeting.
Ministry deputy secretary sector enablement Coralanne Child said as a result of that meeting, and in light of a WorkSafe review that said a more conservative approach was needed, the ministry recognised the need to review the criteria.
She said those under 5 were at a higher risk of choking because they had smaller air and food passages and were still developing their biting, chewing and food-grinding skills.
"Since the beginning of 2016, we have been alerted to seven instances of children choking at early learning services, including Neihana's case. Not all of these instances have involved food.
She said most early learning services already followed the guidelines but some might need to make changes.
Renata said they were "very, very pleased".
"This is just what we have been wanting. Neihana is not just a one-off and childcare centres were giving high-risk food to kids all the time."
Renata said although some children could handle eating certain foods, others couldn't.
She said the new guideline eliminated some foods that were very high-risk and difficult to alter in childcare such as lollies, chips, whole nuts/seeds/dried fruit, popcorn and sausages. However other high-risk foods could still be given but needed to be altered according to the age of the child, she said.
"I don't want people to think 'these stupid people are making us cut up our grapes'. It's about understanding it is a good thing to know about choking risks and being on board with the changes."
Renata said she was impressed with the work the ministry had done, including breaking down recommended foods for those under 3 and those aged 3 to 6.
"We all know that people can choke on anything but it is about introducing it at an appropriate time. It's also about making it more safe and easier for teachers to manage."
She admitted they had not wanted to go public about their tragedy but they did it to keep other children safe.
"It is a huge thing looking after Neihana, not just his physical care but managing his timetable too. And doing all that and advocating for change as well, it's taken a huge toll."
High-risk foods to be banned
* Whole or pieces of nuts
* Large seeds like pumpkin or sunflower
* Hard or chewy sweets or lollies
* Crisps or chippies
* Hard rice crackers
* Dried fruit
* Sausages, saveloys and cheerios
Q and A
What will these changes mean for early learning services?
Most services already follow guidelines for minimising food-related choking risks. But some may need to make changes to the way they do things to meet the new minimum standards.
Are all early learning services affected?
Yes. The proposed changes are for all service types including centre-based, home-based, hospital-based, kōhanga reo and playgroups.
Are services where children bring their own food included?
The proposed criteria will cover any circumstances where children are eating in an early learning service, whether food is provided by the service or by parents.
How can you have your say?
Consultation ends on Friday, November 15 and you can have your say by clicking on their link: https://consultation.education.govt.nz/early-learning-strategic-plan/food-related-choking-risk-in-early-learning/