Everyone agrees New Zealand’s rate of obesity remains a real concern. The New Zealand Health Survey 2015/16 shows that 32 per cent of people over 15, and 11 per cent of children were obese. Of those, 47 per cent of Maori adults, 15 per cent of Maori children, 67 per cent of Pacific adults, and 30 per cent of Pacific children were obese.

Well-known nutritionist Claire Turnbull summed up perfectly one of the main reasons for those figures when she said “the biggest problem in New Zealand is people can’t cook”. What she was saying was that if you’re cooking a meal at home and sitting down and eating it as a family, it’ll more likely be a much healthier meal than picking up some fast-food.

But to get to that point, more of us need to know more about our food – what’s in it and where it comes from.

It’s generally recognised that the key to good health and fighting obesity is knowing more about our food – food literacy. Because the more we know, the more we’ll be able to make informed choices about what’s good for us.

The Government’s Childhood Obesity Package is the cornerstone of our approach to obesity, and one its initiatives includes working with the industry, which does a lot of work on school education programmes. There are some great examples out there, including Be Healthy, Be Active and Cook for Life (Nestle), Eat Your Words (Sanitarium), Breakfast Club (Harraways), Project Cook (Heinz Wattie’s), Nourish our Kids (George Weston), Kickstart (Fonterra and Sanitarium), Breakfast for Better Days (Kellogg’s), and Move 60 (Coca-Cola).

But it’s not just industry that’s involved in getting the right messages across.

One programme that has impressed me over the years is run by Foodstuffs, and it’s rather cool.

Food for Thought is a programme developed by nutritionists and teachers to help Year 5 and 6 pupils (9 and 10-year-olds) about nutrition and the importance of healthy eating in a fun and interactive setting.

Schools that join get their own nutritionist to work in the classroom, first launching the theme of nutrition and then helping with understanding during a topic. Lessons can be tailored to suit each class’s requirements.

The programme provides classroom resources in the form of posters on six topics – Food Groups and You, Know what you Eat, Food for a Healthy Body, Understanding Nutrition, Nutrition for Being Active, and Food Labelling for Fun. Pupils can directly access information and refer to them when undertaking an activity or they can be displayed in the classroom.

But I’m sure the real fun bit for the kids is the visit to their local PAK’nSAVE, New World, or Four Square, where they can apply what they’ve learnt in an interactive setting.

There they learn about product placement, product comparisons (for example, fresh and canned fruits and vegetables), allergy awareness, and how to read labels. And when they return to the classroom, they can plan, budget, purchase, prepare and share a nutritious shared lunch sponsored by the supermarket.

Like many of the projects the industry runs or supports, this gets in where it is likely to have the most effect – hands-on in schools, where young minds are hungry for knowledge and teaching the right habits can last a lifetime.

I firmly believe that empowering people is where the fight against obesity will be won.

(originally published in Supermarket News)