Fiji’s schools teach healthy living

August 2014

Pupils at Khemendra Primary School in Fiji don’t just learn about healthy food, they help to grow their own. Each class is responsible for cultivating different types of fruit and vegetables in the school garden and greenhouse.

WHO

Health Promoting Schools programme

The project was started by teacher Mereani Ligaiviu after she attended a workshop run by Fiji’s Health Promoting Schools (HPS) programme that trains and supports staff to develop healthy food environments and promote physical activity. She says: “The HPS training empowered me to get people to stay healthy.”

In addition to the garden, Mrs Ligaiviu runs an aerobics class which is attended by 65 students 3 times a week.

Khemendra Primary is one of more than 84 schools participating in the HPS network, which receives resources from the Fijian Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization (WHO).

WHO guidance has been invaluable in helping the government in Fiji develop the policies which make up the HPS programme, such as the National School Canteen Guidelines. The advice which canteen operators receive about the foods and drinks they should restrict on their menus is based on WHO healthy eating recommendations.

“Habits start young and schools are a highly effectively setting to help cultivate healthy behaviours and teach the next generation how to prevent disease later in life,” says Dr Liu Yunguo, WHO Representative for the South Pacific and Director of Pacific Technical Support.

Healthier behaviour in children prevent chronic diseases

The HPS programme, running since 2009, aims to encourage healthy behaviour in children and address factors like obesity that can lead to diseases such as diabetes, cancer, stroke, and heart disease. Such lessons are badly needed. In Fiji, 20% of adult men and 41% of adult women are classified as obese—a widely acknowledged risk factor for NCDs.

HPS advisers help teaching staff to identify what their school needs to focus on most and come up with practical plans that will help keep their pupils healthy.

Dharmend Shankar, Head Teacher at Navoalevu Primary School, returned from HPS training full of ideas. “Let’s start something,” he said to his school manager, “No use learning it and not implementing it.” The result was a garden that is now the pride of the school, providing fruit and vegetables such as cassava, coconuts and cucumbers.

Parents and teachers alike are engaged in the project to ensure the school sets a healthy example in the community. Meanwhile, students are enjoying eating the results. “I like eating fresh vegetables and I like planting more vegetables”, said one student at Rabulu Sanatan Primary School, another Health Promoting School.

“Let’s start something, no use learning it and not implementing it.”

Dharmend Shankar, Head Teacher at Navoalevu Primary School

At Navai Primary School, some 80% of pupils were malnourished as a result of their junk food-dominated diets. When Head Teacher Dhavendra Datt returned from HPS training, he focussed on getting the school canteen to sell healthier food at affordable prices. The school has designated every Friday as “Fruit Day”, when teachers check to make sure each child brings a piece of fruit to school to share—and that they eat it.

Improving school food was also a priority for St. Mary's Primary in Labasa, where HPS advisers identified obesity and tooth decay as priority problems. Canteen operators were briefed on the National School Canteen Guidelines, and junk food and fizzy drinks were replaced with blended fruit juice and fresh local fruit at affordable prices. “It did not affect our sales and profit in the canteen when we changed to healthy options,” said Head Teacher Vereniki Rusaqoli. “In actual fact, we seem to be making more!"

Inspired by how quickly the children adopted better diets, teachers have been exploring other health initiatives. More stand pipes were installed near classrooms so pupils can easily get drinking water. In addition, children are taught and encouraged to have good personal hygiene habits, including washing their hands before and after meals, and after using the toilet.

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