Long-lasting impacts for Pasifika children experiencing food hardship

February 12, 2021

​By Paige Faigaa - Paige.faigaa@pmn.co.nz

Many Pacific infants are not getting enough to eat or are eating unhealthy food and drinks, with disastrous consequences for their education and development.

Dietician Mafi Funaki-Tahifote says the roll-on effects of poor nutrition early on is long lasting.

​"Those children are going to be overweight and obese, it does then affect them having increased chances of non-communicable diseases, diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. But it's not just the physical it's also affecting them through their self-esteem."

Her comments follow a new study which suggests Pacific families are struggling to access healthy food in their child's first year of infancy.

The study draws upon information collected from 6000 families participating in the country's largest longitudinal study of child development Growing Up in New Zealand.

Its lead researcher Dr Sarah Gerritsen ​reported four in ten Pacific children lived in households that depended on food banks or special food grants from the government.

She suggested children experiencing food hardship were more likely to consume unhealthy food and drinks early in infancy, harming their health.

​"Babies are growing at such a huge rate, they need healthy food for optimum brain development during this period."

Funaki-Tahifote says it's sad seeing a developed country like New Zealand have families who are having to "put aside the fakama (embarrassment) to put food on the table".

​She believes food hardship is a contributing factor to the decline of student achievement across the education sector.

"When you feel makona (full) or when you feel that you've had enough to eat, you're much happier to be sitting down to study and to learn, when you're not getting all the right nutrients and not feeling that makona then you don't have the energy and motivation to actually be learning to your potential," says Funaki-Tahifote.

Gerritsen says food hardship is often caused by what's available and what's cheap in the supermarkets.

She's urging the government to intervene. 

"We really need to change the whole food system here and start thinking about this in a holistic way.

"We need to see the government really focusing in this early life period, while supporting our communities, so Pasifika led solutions to this issue is really what we're looking for if forty per cent of Pasifika families are affected," says Gerritsen.

But Funaki-Tahifote believes change can also start in the homes and among Pacific communities.​

"Our collective strength as the Pacific is to be sharing some of the excess foods in one household to another.

"It's also about cooking skills which are reducing in our communities. Eating out is one thing that's stopped from learning how to peel a potato or boil an egg or making the normal chop suey or curry we have at home."