Helping to beat Cook Islands obesity epidemic

Many of the resources we take for granted in New Zealand schools are scarce in the Cook Islands, says Lincoln University ecology professor Steve Wratten.
Following a recent trip to Rarotonga to talk about sustainable fruit and vegetable production, Professor Wratten was able to give 10 of Lincoln University’s binocular microscopes and lamps to the Cook Islands Ministry of Education.
“The Cook Islands has a rich, modern education curriculum and high-quality teachers,” he says. “However, resources such as microscopes, that are readily available in New Zealand schools, are scarce.
“This makes hands-on learning very challenging. As a scientist teaching in a university setting, I couldn’t imagine how challenging it would be to teach biology without a binocular microscope, so we wanted to help out.”
Professor Wratten visited Rarotonga in conjunction with the NZ Aid-funded Pacific Science for Health Literacy Project, at the invitation of project director Jacquie Bay, of the Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland.
The project involves teachers developing learning resources that explore sustainable food production, as a response to questions from students about the challenges of accessing affordable fruit and vegetables.
Professor Wratten joined teachers and local growers in workshops, sharing scientific evidence about effective practices that can be translated into multiple contexts around the world.
Limited access to inexpensive fruits and vegetables is one of the issues fuelling an obesity epidemic in the Cook Islands, says Professor Wratten.
“Obesity is at very high levels, creating significant challenges for Cook Islands communities. Reported cases of diabetes are at 24 per cent, but quite a lot are unreported. About 88 per cent of the population are either overweight or obese, according to the Cook Islands NCD Risk Factors STEPS Report.”
Fruit and vegetables tend to be very expensive in the Cook Islands, due to 85 per cent of them being imported from overseas.
“One cauliflower can cost $13, which locals can’t afford because their salaries are so low. When processed and junk foods are relatively cheap and incomes are limited, choice disappears,” he says.
The Pacific Science for Health Literacy Project is a collaboration between the Liggins Institute and the Cook Islands Ministries of Education and Health. It focuses on empowering adolescents to confront societal challenges by educating them about such issues as obesity, food security and non-communicable diseases.
The school-based programme is under development in the Cook Islands and Tonga, and is supported by a series of learning modules and resources that schools have added into their wider curriculum.
“Project director Jacquie Bay doesn’t want to give them cold facts, but to tell stories and engage in contextual learning so kids can dig up earthworms and count them and weigh them, as well as sow flowers to encourage beneficial insects on their crops,” says Professor Wratten.
“We are giving the students the tools to explore and think about their environment in a different way, to excite them and lead them to see that science is part of their daily life.”
Cook Islands students Ben Patia and Chassis Parima enjoy using one of the microscopes that Lincoln University recently donated to the CI Ministry of Education. Ben and Chassis attend Tereora College, which is located in Nikao, Rarotonga.
For further information on the Pacific Science for Health Literacy Project, please contact:
Jacquie Bay
Director, LENScience
Liggins Institute, University of Auckland
P 09 923 4282

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