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Cooking up success for local foods in Pohnpei

The 'Go Local' campaign aims to increase production and consumption of local foods (Island Food Community of Pohnpei)
The 'Go Local' campaign aims to increase production and consumption of local foods
Island Food Community of Pohnpei

With one of the richest and most biodiverse food systems in the world, the Pacific island state of Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia could well be regarded as a tropical paradise. But changes in lifestyle and diet over recent years, resulting in an overdependence on imported foods, have led to a worrying upward trend in obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer in adults and micronutrient deficiencies in children. However, as a result of a successful "Go Local" campaign, communities are once more opting for healthier diets based on their rich cultural heritage of local foods.

'Go Local', organised by the Island Food Community of Pohnpei (IFCP) and partners, aims to win recognition for the 'CHEEF' (culture, health, environment, economic and food security) values of local foods, and also to increase production and consumption of these foods across the islands. Promotional posters, postage stamps, postcards, recipe collections, newspaper articles, radio programmes and workshops have all been used to spread the message of 'Let's go local' to island communities.

The strength of the campaign has been underscored by work conducted under a global health project, led by the Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition (CINE), which documented the diversity of local foods - primarily plants and fish - and gathered information about diets and health. As a result, nearly 400 different types of local foods have been identified across Pohnpei, including many varieties of banana, breadfruit, taro, yam, fruits, leafy vegetables and fish.

Value of diversity

"It is quite amazing to know that over 130 different types of breadfruit existed across Pohnpei," says Dr. Lois Englberger a public health nutritionist and IFCP researcher. "When breadfruit was the main staple, many different types were grown and, by selecting early or late-maturing varieties, the best farmers could harvest the fruit year-round. These days, whilst breadfruit is still consumed, it is no longer the staple and is generally only selected for its taste."

Almost 400 different types of local foods, including taro, have been identified across Pohnpei (Island Food Community of Pohnpei)
Almost 400 different types of local foods, including taro, have been identified across Pohnpei
Island Food Community of Pohnpei

Working with a community group from Mand, which lies some 50 km from Pohnpei's main town, Kolonia, the 'Go Local' campaign was able to focus on 20 species of breadfruit selected for promotion, drawing on assessments made of their nutritional content. Karat and other yellow and orange-fleshed bananas were high on the list as well as other species rich in provitamin A, such as giant swamp taro and pandanus.

About half the adult population of Mand, around 120 adults, took part in a variety of activities, including group interviews on foods eaten; weight, height and waist measurement; talks and films on healthy lifestyles; eating local foods and distributing planting material. A community working group helped to guide and plan the activities.

Across Pohnpei, numerous initiatives have helped spread the 'Go Local' messages. By use of short, fun messages ('Be happy - eat a banana!'), songs and dramas to highlight CHEEF values, the publicity campaign has achieved extremely high rates of recognition. Newspaper and other news reports on the project at regional and international levels have also increased local interest. However, the success of the activities has been due largely to the many participating agencies which have provided support.

Assessing the impact

The impacts of the work in Mand have not yet been revolutionary, but there are encouraging signs of change. Learning and discussing their health, and the nutritional values of their local foods, has proved important in convincing people that a change of diet was needed and possible. Surveys conducted in 2005 and 2007 have revealed that diets have become more diverse, matched by an approximate 30 per cent reduction in average daily consumption of imported white rice.

To back the campaign, IFCP has only ever served local food at community meetings to demonstrate, as Englberger says, "that what can be served at large functions, can also be served at home." To lead by example, many officials have given up eating rice with the IFCP chairman enthusiastically reporting that even his grandchildren had decided they wanted to eat like him. Encouragingly, the IFCP work is also supported by FSM President Mori, and it is hoped that a new policy for government-supported workshops to serve local food will soon be introduced.

Diets have become more diverse as island communities consume more local food (Island Food Community of Pohnpei)
Diets have become more diverse as island communities consume more local food
Island Food Community of Pohnpei

Spreading the word

"Raising awareness of CHEEF benefits is good but not enough," says IFCP vice-chairman Moses Pretrick. "We have to now look at policy issues wherever we can. We are encouraged by the recent development that the Mand community now has a policy of banning imported soft drinks at community meetings and we are working to see how import taxes on soft drinks might be introduced to perhaps encourage other communities to do the same."

Englberger concludes that the hard work and dedication in promoting the 'Go Local' messages has paid off. "It's so exciting so see what a difference it has made in Mand," she says. "It took us seven years to develop a poster we knew really worked but we know the lessons we've learned can be applied across the Pacific to help others celebrate their local diversity and benefit from it."

Beyond Pohnpei, Englberger and colleagues have just returned from a 'Go Local' workshop in Kosrae, the neighbouring island state, but it is hoped wider impact will be achieved when recent developments are presented at the regional meeting for the Pacific Food Summit, soon to be held in Vanuatu.

Date published: March 2010


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