May 28, 2019

A healthier New Zealand starts in its communities

This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald and Health | Central.

“The healthcare challenge of this century.”

That’s how the World Health Organisation has labelled chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity – and New Zealand is no exception.

The rising tide of preventable chronic disease across the country has damaging effects not only on whānau and communities, but wields broader issues on social, economic and health systems – costs yet to be calculated nationally. The causes are complex and without a single solution, but a growing body of evidence indicates a comprehensive and coordinated approach is required over a sustained period of time.

Healthy Families New Zealand is one such prevention approach being implemented across Aotearoa. Funded by the Ministry of Health, Healthy Families NZ was launched in 2014 to address the inequities faced by New Zealand communities with higher than average rates of preventable chronic disease and/or high levels of deprivation.

The initiative operates in ten sites across the country and each site each has identified its priorities reflective of the unique needs and strengths of the community it serves. Key areas of focus include increased physical activity, improved nutrition and mental wellbeing, more people smoke-free and reducing the rate of alcohol-related harm.

The Healthy Families NZ model empowers community leaders to think differently about the causes of poor health, and make changes to the systems which influence the health and wellbeing of people, whānau and communities – put simply, the places where New Zealanders live, learn, work and play.

Deborah Woodley, the Ministry of Health’s Deputy Director-General Population Health and Prevention, explains a healthier Aotearoa starts in the places where we spend our time.

“In healthier environments, children learn better, workplaces are more productive, whānau are healthier and happier, and communities thrive. Through the power of collaboration and co-design, Healthy Families NZ supports community leaders to identify, ideate and implement change to help make healthy choice, the easy choice in our communities.”

The Healthy Families NZ approach is underpinned by the concept that significant changes are needed within the current system, if issues such as obesity are to be improved long term. The initiative is underpinned by an explicit focus on improving Māori health and improving health equity for groups at greater risk of chronic diseases.

The school system is one example where Healthy Families NZ is dedicating significant resource across the country. In 2016, the Ministry of Health set a challenge for schools to enact a ‘water only’ policy on school grounds. With only one in ten schools currently having a water only policy in place, schools were challenged to take the pledge. However, for some schools, there were unforeseen barriers to achieving this.

In West Auckland, insights gathered by Healthy Families Waitākere clearly showed water infrastructure was lacking, requiring funding to resolve the issues and have new water fountains installed.

Through this process, which included collaboration with community leaders and partners, Healthy Families Waitākere facilitated improved water infrastructure in more than 52 schools across the region.  This included securing funding for new water fountains and developing water only pledges.

Kerry Allan, Healthy Families Waitākere Manager, says schools are unique places which enable healthy habits to be learned at an early age, and in turn transcend to the wider whānau.  

“Through our work in schools, we have seen the message on water extend beyond school grounds, reaching the wider community and whānau. Parents have reported children asking for water at home instead of fizzy drink or juice, ultimately leading to a shift in behaviour and the adoption of additional healthy habits which last a lifetime.”

With the support of their principals, teachers and board members, students in West Auckland have been key to driving the water related changes in their schools.

Installation of a new water fountain at Massey Primary school was the start of a much wider water-only policy that was embraced by the entire school community.

“Initially 25 students took part in a pro water project alongside Healthy Families Waitākere, looking at what a water policy would look like.  The policy has since shaped a number of initiatives, including students identifying the best location for the new fountain,” says Massey Primary Principal Bruce Barnes.

The water policy has brought about real changes in the school environment.

“We’ve seen an associated improvement in learning.  Teachers have also seen noticeable changes in lunch boxes since implementing the water only policy.  Students who used to bring sugary drinks to school are now reaching for their water bottle and refilling throughout the day.”

Kerry Allan says schools are one of many environments the Healthy Families NZ initiative are working in.

“Healthy Families NZ work across a variety of environments to improve health outcomes for our communities. Workplaces, marae, early childhood centres, sports club, parks and more all play important roles in our daily lives and working together we can create healthy communities now and into the future.”