Nov 23, 2020 Last Updated 12:34 AM, Nov 23, 2020

Food Revolutionaries

  • Nov 24, 2020
  • Published in Sep-Oct

The founder of the Pacific Island Food Revolution says the campaign’s work on changing food choices in the Pacific region is “super relevant” in the current global coronavirus pandemic.

“Our project is about nutritional resilience and building your immunity, which if you look at all the COVID concerns and the red flags raised by health experts, it’s around those who are vulnerable to underlying conditions. And we go right to the underlying conditions,” says chef Robert Oliver. “The whole end game for us is about creating resilient and robust local food systems.”

The Pacific Island Food Revolution is most commonly associated with the competitive television contest that pits cooks from Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa and Tonga against each other. It’s now in its second season, and airs in 14 island nations to six million people per week according to Oliver, plus audiences in New Zealand, Australia, Asia and soon, through the BBC food channel. But it has many other elements, online and on social media, and through radio programs on local stations.

Funding from the program, which amounted to A$7 million for two and a half years, has now run out, and Oliver says they are looking for a new home.

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PNG’s Acting Health Secretary has announced another suspected death from COVID-19 in the Nation's Capital.

Dr Paison Dakulala said a 35-year-old health worker died due to respiratory illness as a result of COVID-19 over the weekend. However the man’s relatives say he died from other health issues.

Meanwhile, a first case of COVID-19 was reported in Lae Tuesday. There are 63 confirmed cases in PNG.

"The reality is, that based on reputable modelling, the number of cases in Papua New Guinea is much higher than that which has been recorded” Prime Minister James Marape said. “Based on current numbers, we can expect to see a double in the number of cases every 2 to 3 days.”

The increased number of diagnoses has prompted a 14-day lockdown of Port Moresby which will see schools closed and public transport cease operations, apart from taxi services. Masks will be mandatory in public places, a  10pm-5am curfew is in place  and flights into and out of Port Moresby are restricted. There will be a maximum limit of 15 people gathering in public places.

The Business Council of PNG is concerned a prolonged lockdown could see 68% of PNG businesses shut their doors by the end of this year. Council President Nuni Kulu has suggested businesses be allowed to self-regulate to ensure high hygiene standards and social distancing.

PNG’s health system is under immense stress. Port Moresby General Hospital has reorganised its emergency department and essential services, and has made a public appeal for a wide range of supplies including face masks, gloves, fruit and vegetables, bottled water, toilet paper and motor vehicles for staff transportation.  Meanwhile the PNG Nurses Association is threatening strike action. It has petitioned the government calling for a change in management at the health department, citing shortages in personal protection equipment (PPE) for front line officers, an absence of standarding operating procedures, and a lack of training and alloances for nurses caring for COVID-19 patients.

Meanwhile Australia is sending up to eight medical specialists to PNG next week to assist with the COVID-19 response.“This forward team will provide immediate on ground assessment to improve laboratory strengthening, case management, infection control, triage and emergency management, and public health,” an Australian government statement said. The United States has  donated 40 ventilators to PNG on top of the US$3.5 million provided to the PNG government for the response. China has also donated ventilators and PPE kits to PNG. PPE kits have also been donated by UNICEF, World Bank, Japan Government, Newcrest Mining and others.

Down south, the mayor of Torre Shire in North Queensland says border controls may need to be tightened to stop PNG nationals entering the Torres Strait for emergency health care.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has already said security at the Solomon Islands-Papua New Guinea border remains a top priority.

“As you might already be aware, in previous weeks, we had a case involving two PNG nationals who have crossed the border and came into contact with seven of our locals. All seven individuals have undergone quarantine and their tests have returned negative,” the Solomon Star reports Sogavare as saying.


The Pacific’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak is likely to lead to increased scrutiny of health budgets and investments in our region.

However first there are the very pressing questions of how to scale up response in individual countries and territories, best leverage regional expertise and cooperation, maintain public health messaging that is relevant to Pacific communities, and prepare for second and subsequent waves of infection.

When Islands Business first interviewed Sunia Soakai, the Deputy Director, Public Health Division, at the Pacific Community, only five countries had COVID-19 testing capabilities: Fiji, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Guam and Papua New Guinea. Since then other Pacific locations have come online. Palau has begun random testing with equipment donated by Taiwan. American Samoa is doing limited local testing, while still sending samples to Hawaii. The Northern Marianas has taken delivery of kits from a South Korean manufacturer, and its government aims to test every resident.

The most efficient way of facilitating local testing in our region, says Soakai, is to use custom-made cartridges in machines already in place for TB testing. The joint Incident Management Team of which SPC is a member (see p13) has placed orders for the cartridges and the consumables that go with them.

“No firm date has been set by the manufacturer [for delivery]” Soakai says, “but given that the Pacific is a region that has limited capacity, WHO and UNICEF have provided their support and the manufacturer has agreed to provide priority for the Pacific.”

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The deadly measles outbreak currently spreading through the Pacific is exacting a great human, and likely significant economic cost. At least 60 children and one adult in Samoa have died from measles or its complications according to the National Emergency Coordination Centre.

A State of Emergency was declared in Samoa on November 15.

The outbreak traces its origins to New Zealand. Samoa has closed all schools as well as its only university. Graduation ceremonies were cancelled and preschools, day care centres and outpatient clinics at hospitals have been closed.

In declaring the State of Emergency, Acting Prime Minister Faimalotoa Kika Stowers-Ah Kau announced that measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccines are now mandatory and that children read more buy your personal copy at

Talking about a revolution

The secrets of combatting noncommunicable diseases in our countries can be found in our Pacific Islands food cultures says Kiwi chef Robert Oliver on the eve of his new show, the Pacific Island Food Revolution.

Oliver has long been an advocate for traditional Pacific foods. His earlier tv series and cookbook explored how tourism and hotel menus could become “the business plan of a nation”, more truly reflecting Pacific diversity and values.

Now Oliver and his fellow Pacific Food Warriors have health in their sights through the new reality television series.

“We have four countries, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu and Samoa, and in each country we do two episodes. We begin with three teams in each country and throughout the episodes there is one team left…We’ve made our challenges address particular issues. So there is one in Fiji called greens because Fiji has these insanely high rates of anaemia, but you walk into Suva market and there are greens everywhere. In Samoa there is one called ‘colour of the rainbow’ which is around putting many colours on your plate, because colours indicate nutrients and we had the Fa’afafine community, because they’ve done work with the Ministry of Health in Samoa, to help socialise that awareness. And in Tonga there was one around Royal food, because there was a tradition of Royal food that was high status, so we created that to give Tongan food the same status that Royal food implies. My co-host in Tonga was her Royal Highness [Princess Royal Salote Mafile’o Pilolevu Tuita] so she really helped with that.”

Oliver says in the modern Pacific, many people opt to farm and fish, and then sell their expensive crabs, healthy fresh fish and farm produce in order to buy cheap tinned-fish and other processed food in the supermarket.

“We live in paradise and do not need foreign intervention to help us change, but rather can adopt the Pacific food culture to fight NCDs,” he says. 

He says people eat junk food because it is convenient and cheap. “The cup of soup noodles is almost a benchmark for convenience and cost. They’re super cheap, they’re super easy but fundamentally, if you live on them you die. It just comes down to that…but you have to understand the real cost and one of the challenges of what we do is how do you say that without scaring people and putting people off.”

UNICEF Representative for Pacific Island Countries, Sheldon Yett, agrees. “People go to the lowest common denominator, salty noodles are cheap, they are available, they are heavily marketed, and people get addicted. Salt and sugar are addictive, that’s a tremendous challenge we have. We have to change habits, we have to change behaviour, that is not something that is done overnight. It’s done with constant reassessment and reinforcement and by those who influence people’s lives every day and that’s something we’re trying to do here.”

UNICEF is involved in the Pacific Island Food Revolution program through the “First 1000 days” challenge, and UNICEF Ambassador and Tongan Olympian, Pita Taufatofua co-hosts that episode. Yett says while NCDs are a huge and growing problem in the Pacific, so is stunting.

“A third of the population in the Pacific has a problem with stunting, that’s huge. That means that they are too short for their height. That’s because of nutrition and the interplay with their environment, it’s not because of their genes. So we are working to ensure that first of all, governments understand this, and that polices are in place. It’s really the first thousand days of a child’s life that are so important and that interventions have to be made, because after that, it’s irreversible. We are working to ensure that exclusive breast feeding is in place for the first six months, that pregnant mothers get access to good nutrition, [and] that babies have access to good nutrition and that does not include Coca Cola or juice.”

“We really need to engage people, we need to find a way to get some basic information to the communities, to individuals, to mothers to fathers, people in kitchens and we thought this avenue [the Pacific Island Food Revolution] is the perfect way of doing it,” Yett says. “Unlike other areas where stunting and malnutrition is a problem, there is no shortage of protein here, you are surrounded by it, and we want to make sure that people
go back to their roots and harness the proteins, the vitamins and the nutrients that are surrounding them and we want to do it in a way that cuts through, an entertaining way and also an informative and scientifically correct way, and we thought this is the perfect linkage.”

Apart from the reality television series (which Oliver describes as “like My Kitchen Rules but more warm-heated and filled with Pacific heritage and humour), the Pacific Island Food Revolution will also use the power of radio and social media to turn a mirror on the Pacific and show that eating fresh, local indigenous foods is the answer to good health.

“We do not want the show to be end of the story, it is the just the beginning,” Oliver says. “Behavioural change takes around eight years…We’ve been quite realistic, we’re not looking to have a dent in the health numbers for the first couple of years, it’s just ‘have we got people engaged and have we developed something that people want to be a part of?’ ”

  • For the full interview with Robert Oliver visit www.islandsbusiness.
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