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Student walking past Zoology buildingMonday 19 October 2009 3:58pm

Comprehensive recommendations to improve food security and increase physical activity have been made by a University of Otago and University of Auckland research consortium.

They include introducing a Smart Card to subsidise healthy food, helping people to access their full benefit entitlements, regulating loan-sharks, placing greater responsibility on the food industry, improving urban design, and supporting culturally-specific physical activity programmes.

The Smart Card proposal was presented recently at the Public Health Association Conference, and now the full report outlining all of the recommendations has been made public.

The ENHANCE study, commissioned in 2007 by the Health Research Council of New Zealand in partnership with the Ministry of Health, investigated improving economic and physical access to healthy food (or 'food security') and increasing physical activity in Māori, Pacific and low-income families. It was part of a wider initiative to improve public health and reduce the burden of chronic disease in the population.

"There is no one solution to improving food security and increasing physical activity," says lead researcher Dr Louise Signal of the University of Otago, Wellington. "These are complex issues requiring a range of solutions. Our recommendations reflect this, and should be seen as a comprehensive package in which the Government, non-government organisations and the community all have a role to play."

"Despite New Zealand having an adequate food supply many households struggle to feed their families," says Ms Delvina Gorton of The University of Auckland who led the food security component of the study. "This is a particular issue for up to half of Pacific households and up to a third of Māori households with children. In a developed country like ours it is unacceptable that so many people have to struggle to feed themselves," she says.

The ways policy-makers could help to enhance food security were to increase the amount of money households have to spend on food, reduce the cost of healthy foods, and address the factors that influence food purchases.

Among the researchers' specific recommendations are the introduction of a Smart Card to subsidise healthy foods, ensuring that all beneficiaries have access to their full and correct benefit entitlements, regulating 'fringe lenders' or 'loan sharks' so that families are less financially stressed, and providing free or subsidised food in schools.

The research also suggested that more work needed to be done to investigate the effect of raising the minimum wage, and argued that reducing GST on healthy foods is a very blunt instrument for addressing food security.

Other proposals include placing greater responsibility on the food industry to ensure that healthy food is more affordable and that consumers have more information and choice, as well as encouraging the use of community gardens and traditional Māori food sources, and teaching healthy cooking skills.

The research also showed that one of the key factors influencing physical activity was urban design. "Improving open spaces and increasing the connections between urban streets encourages people to be more active," says Dr Ralph Maddison of The University of Auckland who led this component of the research.

"We recommend that central and local government include health considerations in their urban design policies, and that there is further research into the influence of the urban environment on physical activity and health.

Another recommendation was support for culturally-specific physical activity programmes. "Physical activity programmes can be anything from organised sport to traditional food gathering," says Dr Maddison. "To ensure greater participation it's essential to consult with Māori about what works for them, and not make assumptions or impose outside perspectives. For Māori, consideration of tikanga is an important part of this process."

"We need to help communities to develop and monitor the success of their own initiatives, and in practical terms this means providing funds and training opportunities," says Dr Maddison.

These and many other recommendations are outlined in the full report (PDF format 1.4MB). A summary of recommendations is presented in the final chapter of the report.

A list of Otago experts available for media comment is available elsewhere on this website.

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