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From nomadic hunter-gatherers to Uber eats in bed, the way we access, prepare and consume food has evolved drastically over time. Our ancestors needed quick-witted cooperation and cunning resourcefulness to battle the harsh realities of pre-agricultural times. Innovations in farming, preservation, and more recently mechanisation and chemistry have helped us to support a global population.
However, New Zealand still has a serious problem with food insecurity, which is typically viewed as a problem of the developing world. It is not a new problem here, nor is it going away anytime soon. Working on the frontline of healthcare, I see first hand our communities struggling to access sufficient reliable, affordable, and nutritious food. You can’t help but feel cruel and helpless when trying to encourage a family to have a healthier diet, knowing all too well it is out of reach. Myself and many of my colleagues vent our frustration with a system that doesn’t support such a foundational component for a fair and dignified society. We’ve lost sight of how integral the food system is to everything we do and have allowed our kids to pay the price.
In our country, almost one in five children (between 161,000 and 188,000) live in households in moderate to severe food insecurity – that is, limited or uncertain availability of adequately nutritious and safe food. Our kids are turning up to school unable to concentrate or learn because they don’t have access to proper food. This chronic state of poor nutrition compounded over crucial years of development results in a higher prevalence of developmental, behavioural, and health difficulties, including obesity.
In our property-obsessed nation, those on lower incomes are particularly at risk when every second dollar of disposable income goes on rent. They are often more strapped for time, money or support and may prioritise feeling full over difficult-to-access healthy food.
What is more, ultra-processed, calorie-dense foods are far more readily available and are advertised directly to kids. Even making informed choices is tough, and our confusing labelling system (including the health stars) perpetuates the problem.
Food insecurity has clear links to obesity. New Zealand is the second most obese nation in the OECD, with a staggering 39% of Kiwi kids being classified as overweight or obese. Our kids are more likely to have serious health concerns, do worse in school, have low self-esteem, and experience lower life satisfaction.
Among adults too, conditions related to excess weight have overtaken tobacco as the greatest contributor to health loss and demand is outstripping availability of hospital services. The impact of this on GDP, if we include loss of productivity in our calculations, could skyrocket to an annual estimated cost of $1 billion.
We’ve allowed our food system, which is central to our very existence to be eroded out of control. The Government is subject to heavy lobbying on the issue and both major parties seem content to just tinker at the edges, all the while neglecting our children’s human rights.
It’s easy to feel a mixture of anger, guilt, or even disbelief. But these emotions don’t always translate to meaningful, positive action. But we can join TOP in using compelling evidence to make sure kids in this country all get a fair go.
- To start with, a sugar tax could generate some cash for subsidies for healthy foods, fruit and vege co-ops, and school lunch programmes and dental services.
- A comprehensive ban on junk food advertising could stop brands bombarding our kids’ developing brains.
- We could make health promotion and disease prevention a serious priority for a more proactive, effective and sustainable system.
- We could really get in behind preventative healthcare.
- And finally, we could put more money in people's pockets so Kiwi families can have a dignified choice of the right kinds of healthy foods for them.
Good, evidence-based food policy is fundamental for all of us.
So let’s give the next generation the opportunity to eat well, think well, and be well.
Food for thought.
Dr. Jono Hoogerbrug is a GP in Auckland
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