Date released
23 February 2023

A series of ACIAR-supported projects is working across agriculture, food, health and education sectors in the Pacific region to broaden the understanding of factors influencing the availability and consumption of food.

A major 4-year project nearing completion has focused on national and regional agrifood system data analyses. Partner countries across the Pacific region are working with researchers to better understand what their food systems look like.

A second project is examining the potential of home-grown school meal programs to improve health and learning outcomes for children while also supporting local producers.

And a third project, poised to begin in 2023, will expand regional analyses and examine the ‘food environments’ that shape people’s decision-making as consumers.

Gathering food data

Professor Neil Andrew at the University of Wollongong, Australia, is leading the ACIAR-supported agrifood system data project in partnership with the Pacific Community (SPC), CSIRO and The University of Sydney. This work is gathering information to address gaps in what is known about diets across the region, and how the food trade and food systems are evolving.

‘Food systems are defined as all those activities that transition food from either the soil or the ocean to the plate, and the outcomes in terms of food security and public health,’ said Professor Andrew. ‘And the food systems across much of the Pacific are in transition.’

He points to a decline in consumption of locally produced fish, fruit and vegetables, with increases in imported animal proteins such as beef and chicken, and processed foods. Increased urbanisation, migration and the globalised food trade are also driving these dietary changes.

Within the span of a generation, Pacific island countries and territories are reporting some of the world’s highest rates of obesity, heart disease and other non-communicable diseases.

‘Many Pacific communities are greatly affected by the coexistence of undernutrition, nutrient deficiencies and obesity,’ said Professor Andrew. ‘And food systems thinking is essential to address these food and nutrition security challenges.’

Professor Andrew said by understanding how food is acquired and consumed, national, provincial and local agencies can identify changes to local policies and actions to influence how people make their food choices.

This foundational project will wind up this year and has already produced a range of publicly available reports, housed on the SPC website. These include food consumption reports based on national household income and expenditure surveys, as well as food system briefs, and access to the Pacific Food Trade Database, which has been developed as part of the project.

Woman in a kitchen holding food
Gathering information about diets and nutrition is helping to shape food initiatives to improve health in the Pacific region. Photo: Lorima Vueti, The Pacific Community

Home-grown school meals

Focusing on more specific, on-the-ground initiatives, Dr Sarah Burkhart from the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia, is co-leader of a school meals scoping project along with Dr Danny Hunter from the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT. This project aims to better understand how providing meals at schools, using nutritious foods procured from local farmers, could improve the diets, nutrition and livelihoods of people in the Pacific region.

Dr Burkhart said there is a global move towards providing food in schools to support good nutrition, children’s ability to learn and grow, and also to support attendance at school, which further enhances educational outcomes.

‘We are particularly keen to look at the potential to link in local food systems – local farmers and fishers and food processors. But first we need to learn what is actually happening in the region and identify whether there is interest in trials from schools and local communities,’ said Dr Burkhart.

This 2-year scoping project will be finalised in mid-2023. The preliminary findings were presented at the International Congress of Nutrition (ICN), a 4-yearly global event that was held in Tokyo in December 2022.

Dr Burkhart said while there is a good body of evidence globally about the value and success of school food programs, there is little formal evidence in the scientific literature related to programs in the Pacific region.

The scoping study found only 24 formal reports of school meal and garden programs in a literature review of the past 15 years, including peer-reviewed studies, project reports and country-level summaries from the Global Survey of School Meal Programs. These collectively mentioned 18 of the 22 Pacific island countries and territories.

women in the the colourful main market, portvilla, Vanuatu
Main market (Mama’s Market), Port Vila, Efate Island, Vanuatu. Photo: Shutterstock

‘We know there are other activities across the region, but the information hasn’t necessarily been collated or published,’ said Dr Burkhart.

Among the programs identified, 3 were presented at the ICN conference as case studies, demonstrating how local school meals and gardening projects can work in a Pacific context to increase food security and address health issues, while supporting local production.

For example, Palau Food Service Program manager Brynn Demei outlined her country’s program, which has been running since 2014, and is part of the national health strategy to reduce the incidence of overweight and obese school children.

The program provides meals for about 2,250 public school students each year and has removed highly processed meats from the menu and increased fish, fresh fruit and locally grown vegetables. Nutritionists are involved in developing menus, and the program provides food preparation training. It is also progressively upgrading equipment in school kitchens.

Other smaller and more recently launched projects in Papua New Guinea and Fiji involve school gardens that teach valuable skills, while producing fresh food that is provided to students through school meals.

Analysing food environments

ACIAR Research Program Manager, Fisheries, Professor Ann Fleming has been supporting the food systems approach at ACIAR and she highlights a new project that will begin in 2023 focusing more specifically on food environments, which she describes as ‘the elephant in the room.’

She said it can be a difficult issue to address, involving factors that range from the physical availability of food to advertising, social and cultural preferences, affordability and education.

‘You can have shelves full of healthy food and all of the food knowledge in the world, but if we don’t address people’s local food environments and adopt a broader view of how people make decisions about food in their everyday lives, then interventions will be left wanting,’ said Professor Fleming.

The ACIAR-funded project will be led by Associate Professor Deana Leahy of Monash University to help communities in Pacific island countries analyse how people are exposed to food in their local environments and what influences their ability to make healthy food choices.

It will work particularly with young people and uses a citizen science approach to help young people develop the skills to critically analyse their food environments, from sports grounds and church groups, to social media feeds and local village stores. Using their findings, participants will collectively analyse the data and develop recommendations about what their communities could do to improve those food environments.

A group of people Speaking at the International Congress of Nutrition about the school meals programs in the Pacific
Speaking at the International Congress of Nutrition about the school meals programs in the Pacific, from left, Brynn Demei, Sefano Katz, Helmtrude Sikas-Iha, Jessica Raneri and Dr Sarah Burkhart. Photo: Kenichi Yoshida

Partner communities in the Pacific region are still being finalised for this project, but there is already lots of interest in taking part. Professor Fleming said a critical awareness and analysis of food environments will be an important part of an integrated food systems approach to address the health and dietary challenges in the Pacific region.

ACIAR senior nutrition-sensitive agriculture adviser Mrs Jessica Raneri is also helping to integrate a food systems approach into income-orientated projects that might primarily focus on other issues, such as agricultural production or livestock.

She said there is a growing awareness of the importance of incorporating health and nutrition into these projects, with a ‘first, do no harm’ approach.

‘Sometimes an unintended consequence of efforts to improve production and increase incomes is that the extra income is used to buy more highly processed foods – instant noodles rather than taro, for example. And this can lead to poorer health outcomes.

‘That’s where a food systems or food environment approach can help support outcomes of other projects,’ said Mrs Raneri.

ACIAR PROJECTs: ‘Agriculture and fisheries for improved nutrition: integrated agri-food system analyses for the Pacific region’ (FIS/2018/155); ‘Understanding school food provision in the Pacific: Scoping the potential of local food systems to improve diets, nutrition and livelihoods’ (HORT/2021/159); ‘Extending integrated analysis for improved food system outcomes in Timor-Leste and the Pacific region’ (FIS/2022/120)