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In Pacific Island Kitchens, the Revolution Is Being Televised

February 2, 2022

By Michelle Tevita-Singh and Sandra Kraushaar

Over the last 50 years, there has been a dramatic shift in the diet of Pacific Islanders, from traditional seafood, coconut, green leafy vegetables, and crops like taro, cassava, breadfruit, and yams to imported, processed foods and sugary drinks low in nutrients and high in salt, sugar, and fat.

This displacement of the traditional food system has been accompanied by a catastrophic increase in noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. Statistics point to an epidemic: 90 percent of Tongans are obese, 40 percent of the Pacific Islands population has been diagnosed with an NCD, three Fijians a day undergo diabetes-related amputation—this in a population of 800,000—and NCDs account for 75 percent of all deaths in the Pacific.

Despite clear evidence of a connection, dietary risk factors continue to proliferate in the Pacific Islands.

Looking for a way to push back, The Asia Foundation has joined forces with the producers of Pacific Island Food Revolution (PIFR), a reality-TV cooking competition that’s become a runaway hit in the Pacific Islands by putting traditional ingredients and local produce front and center.

PIFR pits teams of “food warriors” from Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, and Vanuatu against one another in a competition to champion their country’s cuisine in the final rounds. On a typical show, contestants may whip up a classic seafood salad with coconut cream or an innovative take on cassava cake. The competition is fierce, but contestants often share ingredients and praise each other’s recipes, and PIFR has been called a Great British Baking Show with a Pacific Islands vibe. But the underlying theme of the show is serious.

Post-production footage of the Pacific Island Food Revolution

Host and executive producer Robert Oliver, center, on the set of Pacific Island Food Revolution (Photo: Pacific Island Food Revolution)

“We believe that the key to good health is in the Pacific backyard—in farms and markets and in local cuisines,” says host and executive producer Robert Oliver, an award-winning chef and cookbook author who grew up in Fiji and Samoa. “The show is a social movement that’s empowering and inspiring Pacific peoples to make good food choices within their own communities, through traditional knowledge of local foods and how they’re prepared.”

With support from The Asia Foundation, PIFR has extended its efforts beyond the TV screen to support activists like Chef Primrose Siri and surgeon Dr. Basil Leodoro, both season-two contestants from Vanuatu, who are now working to promote local produce and traditional recipes through their own project, Sanma Food Revolution (SFR).

Taking its name from Vanuatu’s multi-island Sanma province, SFR is essentially a traveling roadshow, inspired by the message of PIFR, on the major island of Espiritu Santo. The Asia Foundation supports management and logistics, PIFR advises on approach and communications, the communities and municipalities contribute food and venues, and SFR puts on the roadshow events that make the magic happen. Chef Siri and Dr. Leodoro have assembled a team of more than 350 volunteers, who deliver recipes and nutritional information to households, families, and people with disabilities throughout their communities.

“We couldn’t do it any other way,” says Chef Siri. “We want to share our expertise with our local communities and teach them to recognize the benefits, both physical and economic, of choosing and using fresh, local, island products right from their market.”

Sanma Food Revolution participant stands before their cooked food.

Sanma Food Revolution participants in Vanuatu (Photo: Pacific Island Food Revolution)

“It’s a fight to change behaviors and tackle our ever-growing incidence of noncommunicable diseases,” says Dr. Leodoro, whose surgical department on Vanuatu performed two limb amputations per week from 2016 to 2018 as a result of diabetic complications. “It’s a fight for a healthy, wealthy, and sustainable future, using locally available and locally sourced ingredients to revolutionize the food we present to our families each day.”

“We are fighting decades of processed-food advertising and social media influence that has damaged our nation,” he says, “and we want SFR to be the start of a social change, where our local cuisine takes prominence in each home. That’s where we are headed: into each kitchen and each household in Vanuatu.”

Now, three other islands have invited the SFR team to come to their communities.

The ultimate vision of PIFR is a Pacific where local food and knowledge provide the foundation for economic development, tourism, health, and well-being. They promote local food and encourage Pacific Islanders to return to their traditional diet of nutrient-dense superfoods from their own backyards that are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

A 2021 impact assessment report by the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics shows the extraordinary impact of Pacific Island Food Revolution in the Pacific. On average, 83 percent of the general population are tuning in to watch PIFR, according to the report—an astounding figure—and 42 percent of the show’s viewers report a positive change in their diets over the past year. The proportion of individuals telling pollsters that they are willing to improve their diet has grown by 33 percent in Fiji, 38 percent in Vanuatu, 146 percent in Samoa, and a whopping 262 percent in Tonga.

The findings also show that Pacific Island Food Revolution is changing the public’s perception of traditional cuisine from “village food” to something trendy.

Five participants of the Pacific Island Food Revolution stand behind a cornucopia of Pacific Island vegetables and grains.

The teams from Vanuatu face off in season two for the right to represent their country’s cuisine in the finals. Basil and Annette Leodoro, center, call themselves the “Foodie Doctors.” (Photo: Pacific Island Food Revolution)

The Asia Foundation and PIFR have organized a “solutions incubator” to cultivate new ideas from community groups to grapple with the dietary crisis and its economic repercussions.

“Our vision is to restore traditional, healthy cuisine and culture to transform the eating habits of Pacific people through partnerships,” says Oliver. We believe that real, sustainable change is led by the people with their knowledge, skills, and culture. We want to ensure that the program’s impact in the region continues.”

Pacific Island Food Revolution is currently broadcast internationally, and the team hopes to bring it to the United States soon. The Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced what we all know: that healthy people are needed for healthy economies. Transforming eating habits and promoting Pacific produce is an important step in this direction for the people of the Pacific Islands.

For delicious Pacific Island recipes and other good things, visit Pacific Island Food Revolution on the web.

Michelle Tevita-Singh is Pacific Island Food Revolution’s communications and engagement manager, and Sandra Kraushaar is director of The Asia Foundation’s Pacific Islands program. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation. 

Related locations: Pacific Islands

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