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Nutrition not priority for older Maori, Pacific

7 April 2009

Nutrition is not a priority for older Maori and Pacific people

Promoting optimum nutrition is a key goal for supporting people as they age. However, it is critical to first acknowledge the roles and value of food to those we wish to nourish - Nutrition may not be at the top of their list.

The New Zealand Nutrition Foundation is concerned about the lack of awareness of the common problem of poor nutrition in older Maori and Pacific people. The Foundation recently provided an opportunity for community health workers and caregivers of older Maori and Pacific People to hear from influential health professionals from these (Maori and Pacific) ethnicities. Foundation CEO, Sue Pollard says “The purpose of the seminar was to provide caregivers and others working in this area with practical strategies they can use to improve the nutritional status of those in their care.”

Dietitian Sian Warriner and Leonie Matoe from Te Hotu Manawa Maori both emphasised the great importance of food to Maori people. ‘He Mahi kai te taonga’ – obtaining food is the prized accomplishment for Maori, who ‘once were gardeners’, and hunters and fishermen. However, survey figures tell us:

* only about one-third of Maori households could afford to eat a balanced nutritious diet

* almost another third felt stressed when they could not provide kai for special occasions

* 45% said that their budget limited the variety of food they could choose to buy.

For Maori, these issues are often of far more concern than optimum nutrition, so those promoting healthy nutrition must acknowledge the overriding relationship Maori have with food, acknowledge the mana of Kaumatua, and work with the whole whanau.

Healthy Lifestyle Coach, Ranui Hapi, and Green Prescription Coordinator, Amiria McGarvey, explained that promoting healthy lifestyles to Kaumatua and Kuia requires an understanding of Te Ao Maori and its value system. Ranui’s presentation focused on her guiding principles of humility, reciprocity, openness and flexibility in building a relationship with older Maori. Again the emphasis was on involving the whole family in healthy eating.

Amiria has developed a Green Prescription physical activity programme for Kaumatua that takes account of the traditions from Te Ao Maori. As well as keeping the message simple, everyone, including the instructors, participates together: “Nau te rourou, naku te rourou, ka ora ai te Iwi” - From your contribution and my contribution, the people will be well.

Amiria says, “The reward for me is watching whanau grow in self esteem, confidence and happiness. Overcoming barriers and obstacles in life is a huge success for many of our whanau. I am merely the guide to help them achieve this and physical activity and healthy kai options are the vehicles I use to make it happen.”

Pacific people likewise have a holistic notion of health and it is a family and community concern, rather than an individual matter. Soana Muimuiheata, a Pacific (Tongan) dietitian working in the Counties Manukau area, told seminar participants that food is central to all Pacific cultures. “For many Pacific people, the value of food is context-specific - from a resource of simple sustenance through to a symbolic observation of respect, love and appreciation, hospitality and the honouring of guests” said Soana. Food is something to enjoy rather than a source of nutrients. Barriers to achieving optimum nutrition are based around priorities of tradition, beliefs, family and community obligations. Therefore, when promoting optimal nutrition, it is important to target the whole households and provide practical recommendations taking into account the family socio-economic situations.

Over 130 people attended the seminar - the latest in a regular stream of events offered by the Nutrition Foundation. Previous seminar topics have included barriers to good nutrition in older people and the prevention of falls and injury.


The New Zealand Nutrition Foundation is a non-profit organisation which works pro-actively in the nutrition and food sectors with the food industry, Ministry of Health, other health promotion agencies, schools and the media. Its mission is “to enhance the quality of life of New Zealanders by encouraging informed, healthy and enjoyable food choices.” This seminar was arranged by the Foundation’s Committee for Healthy Ageing, in partnership with Te Hotu Manawa Maori, the Pacific Island Food and Nutrition Advisory Group and the Auckland branches of the New Zealand Dietetic Association and the New Zealand Association of Gerontology.

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