A group of Food Warriors have set out to show the world how eating indigenous foods has a dramatic effect on the health of their respective country’s people.
Spearheaded by Kiwi Chef Robert Oliver, the Pacific Islands Food Revolution is an initiative to tackle the health crisis taking place in the Pacific currently.
His passionate co-hosts and team are bringing about food awareness and encourage positive eating behaviours and the use of indigenous cuisine, while addressing the high rates of non-communicable diseases in the region through edutainment – and it is working…
By Michelle Curran
The answer to the many issues affecting the Pacific lies within the region, particularly when it comes to health and well-being.
Pacific Island Food Revolution (PIFR), developed by Kiwi Chef Robert Oliver and jointly funded by the New Zealand and Australian government, sets out to prove this.
The world-renowned Chef heads the health education initiative tailored to audiences in the Pacific and is headlined by a “Masterchef-style” reality TV cooking competition, featuring contestants from Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu.
This series is supported by digital campaigns such as an online academy, digital storytelling and social media activities to bring about food awareness and encourage positive eating behaviours, while tackling high rates of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) throughout the Pacific.
Robert says the South Pacific is experiencing a serious crisis.
“Non-communicable diseases are decimating Pacific Island populations due to poor food choices encouraged by massive marketing campaigns of fast foods,” he says.
“These foods – sugary drinks, instant noodles and more are replacing the traditional diet of the South Pacific, causing devastating levels of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and heartbreak.
“Where once Pacific populations used healthy, traditional foods to create their diet, a mindset of overseas food being better has all but eliminated them from today’s diets.”
Robert was raised in Fiji and Samoa, and he holds the Pacific region close to his heart.
After developing restaurants in New York, Miami, Las Vegas and Sydney, farm to table resorts in the Caribbean and food programmes feeding homeless people and African immigrants with AIDS in New York City, Robert returned to the South Pacific to write his first book Me’a Kai: The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific, written with a mission to connect Pacific agriculture to the region’s tourism.
The team from Pacific Islands Food Revolution had a lot of laughs while focusing on serious issues in the Pacific region. CREDIT: Supplied.
Me’a Kai stunned the food world by winning top prize – Best Cookbook in the World 2010 – at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris, considered to be the Pulitzers of cookbooks, beating the books from NOMA and The New York Times.
In 2013, Robert released Mea’ai Samoa: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of Polynesia and in May 2014, this book won the Best TV Chef Cookbook in the World 2013 at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Beijing.
Robert is also Chef Ambassador for Le Cordon Bleu, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, and is the presenter of REAL PASIFIK, a television series based on the food culture of the South Pacific.
For Robert, the answer to the crisis situation in the South Pacific has always been in the region, with the deep food knowledge that resides in every Pacific family and of course some of the best ingredients in the world.
“Pacific Island Food Revolution aims to return pride to the healthy food that makes up the traditional diet of the South Pacific,” he says.
“It takes the format of a reality television cooking competition, and uses it to reclaim the Pacific’s original cuisine.”
Using a challenge style, this TV show highlights programmes, initiatives and individuals already doing this, and shine a spotlight on their work while showing viewers what’s possible when using traditional foods.
“This is turning a mirror on Pacific culture itself and saying – actually, you have the answer.
“This is not agenda, it is a joyful celebration of the Pacific itself.”
The PIFR TV series has 12 episodes to be broadcast to more than 20 TV channels in Pacific Island countries, as well as New Zealand and Australia.
It features three teams of local cooks, who are filmed in their countries as they compete for the chance to represent their nation at regional finals in Fiji.
Joining Robert on this food revolution, is a line-up of co-hosts from around the Pacific, including Princess Royal Salote Mafile’o Pilolevu Tuita from the Kingdom of Tonga.
Much loved in the Kingdom, HRH is an advocate for organics in Tonga and has appeared with Robert Oliver speaking on this in REAL PASIFIK Tonga.
Fiji’s Dr Jone Hawea, a doctor with a difference, joins the co-hosts.
A long-time surgeon in Fiji, Jone spent years removing the limbs of fellow Fijians as they succumbed to the effects of diabetes.
He now heads a Healthy Living initiative in Fiji, and in 2014, Jone and Robert filmed seven healthy recipe videos for Fiji TV repeatedly played before the evening news.
Food entrepreneur Votausi Reur-Mckenzie from Vanuatu, known as “the Queen of Ni-Van Cuisine”, has studied as a nutritionist at Queensland University and had her “aha” moment when she realised that her own cultural cuisine ticked all the nutritional boxes she was learning about.
Votausi returned to Vanuatu and formed Lapita Catering, which produces food products from local crops, supplied by a network of over 1,000 farmers that she has cultivated over the years.
Votausi hosted REAL PASIFIKA Vanuatu with Robert and joins him again for PIFR.
UNICEF Ambassador Pita Taufatofa and Olympian from Tonga, also joins the co-hosts for the finals.
Considered a trailblazer in Samoa and great friend of Robert’s, Chef Dora Rossi makes up the final PIFR co-host.
Dora owns two Apia-based restaurants Milani caffè Samoa and Paddles Restaurant, which are both supplied by local organic farmers under the Farm to Table initiative created by Women in Business Development Samoa and Robert.
This TV series is not the first time Dora has worked alongside Robert, appearing in the Pacific TV series REAL PASIFIK Samoa, and featuring in Mea’ai Samoa.
Dora views being a Food Warrior and ambassador for PIFR as a huge opportunity, she says.
“Being a part of PIFR is a great fit, as I was born into the restaurant business and am an advocate for healthy eating and healthy living.
“Pacific Islands Food Revolution seemed to be the perfect opportunity to rub shoulders with Samoan home cooks.”
Born from a “place of kindness”, PIFR showcases food from the Pacific through the raw talent of the contestants and it is a celebration of their cooking skills and food knowledge.
Now is the time for this awakening and food revolution as the world becomes aware of the damage caused by unhealthy eating and lifestyles.
“The world is looking at more healthy ways to sustain itself,” Dora says.
“In light of the health crises upon us, with 75 percent of deaths in the Pacific due to NCDs, the urge to choose a healthier diet and lifestyle is a must.”
The benefits of cooking indigenous cuisine are tenfold, she continues.
A traditional Pacific diet is a healthy one, free of preservatives and harmful chemicals.
“Utilising traditional cooking methods is not only cheaper and convenient; it retains our identity as Pacific peoples…our food is who we are.”
Easy and uncomplicated sums up a lot of indigenous cuisine, such as fa’alifu ulu, Dora adds.
“This is a dish my late grandmother used to cook for me.
“It is boiled breadfruit topped with fresh coconut milk – simple and divine.”
For visitors, immersing oneself in any culture gives you a holistic understanding of the people, the food and the tradition of the Pacific, she adds.
Encouraging Pacific people to return to their indigenous foods is a major driving force behind PIFR.
“This way of eating is healthier than the western diet many have taken up.
“We hope to influence many through ‘edutainment’ – to educate while entertaining our audience.”
The PIFR series not only provides new awareness for its audience, but it has been an enlightening experience for Dora and the other co-hosts.
Although the Pacific indigenous diet and cooking methods are healthy, food and methods need to evolve to keep relevant within society, she adds.
“I also tasted a jackfruit curry which was divine and I had never had jackfruit in a curry before – vegetarian, innovative and just delicious.”
Following the official launch of PIFR on April 6, at Grand Pacific Hotel, Suva, Fiji with national and community Pacific leaders, Dora has had some time to reflect on the entire experience, which she says has been a fantastic journey.
The co-hosts of Pacific Islands Food Revolution. CREDIT: Supplied.
“Meeting my co-hosts from Fiji, Vanuatu and Tonga has been incredible; although we are from different backgrounds, we all have the same interest, which is our fight against NCDs across the region.”
Creator and host Robert says along with the contestants, the co-hosts are the first heroes in this revolution as they share their skills and experiences with the region.
“As we were filming, we felt there was a unique Pacific essence that touched our hearts and I know the audience will feel the same way,” he says.
In-country launch events in participating countries of Tonga, Vanuatu and Samoa followed the official launch.
In Samoa, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr Sailele Malielegaoi, government ministers, diplomats, community leaders, supporters, media and of course, PIFR co-host Dora attended the launch.
The Prime Minister has commended the initiative at the launch, and says the programme can only strengthen and complement existing efforts in promoting healthy eating choices through the consumption of local produce.
“It is an educational platform and I encourage the responsible use of social median TV and radio to ignite the positive change in our meeting behaviour and a healthier Samoa campaign.”
The first episode of PIFR aired across the Pacific on April 11, and Australian audiences were able to watch the series from late April.
Additionally, the PIFR team has also been busy creating digital food warriors around the Pacific.
The team will provide training on digital storytelling later this year as well as online lessons related to each PIFR episode.
You can sign up to become a Food Warrior via the PIFR website, and receive the best recipes, watch behind the scenes actions and gain insights from the Pacific’s most inspiring people.
Providing strategic guidance to PIFR is a Joint Steering Committee made up of national and regional health representatives from the Pacific, which met initially in Fiji, in early April.
A network of organisations in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu are also monitoring the programme’s effectiveness, and it is being overseen by behavioural economists from Busara Centre.
The initial pilot program will receive AUD$7million from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs – Innovation Xchange) and New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs – Aid Programme.
Already, Robert and his team are looking to film series two of PIFR, and applications are now open.
Auditions will be taking place in Samoa (May 8-9); Vanuatu (May 29-30); Tonga (June 12-13); and Fiji (July 24-25).