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Gardening to change minds and save lives

25 May 2023

A University of Canterbury (UC)-led project aims to reduce type 2 diabetes in local Pacific communities by bringing people together to grow vegetable gardens at home.


PhD student Dr Esala Vakamacawai is leading a project that aims to reduce the high incidence of type 2 diabetes amongst Pacific people, by encouraging local families and communities to garden together.

Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury Macmillan Brown Centre PhD student, Dr Esala Vakamacawai, a former medical professional in Fiji, leads the project, which has established 20 backyard vegetable gardens in the last year working with a local Pacific club.

“We know this problem of type 2 diabetes is present in Fiji and in indigenous Fijians,” Dr Vakamacawai says. “This is a non-communicable disease that is related to modifiable lifestyle factors such as obesity, diet and exercise, so that means as health professionals we can do something about it.”

SDG 3 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3 - Good health and wellbeing

The consequences of type 2 diabetes can be devastating. As a surgeon in Fiji, Dr Vakamacawai performed many amputations on patients for whom lifestyle modifications did not work or were recommended too late. “There is now an amputation every eight hours in Fiji,” he says. “Life expectancy amongst Fijians is 68 years.”

The cultural drivers of type 2 diabetes compound the problem and are as present among Indigenous Fijians in Aotearoa New Zealand as they are in Fiji.

“Village life was more active in the past, but now 60% of Fijians live in urban environments. Fijian diet staples are taro and casava, which are high in carbohydrate, and people don’t always understand this is a big contributor to diabetes, because they think they are not eating sugar, so they are doing well. Health literacy comes into play.”

Even in Ōtautahi Christchurch, obesity is acceptable among Fijian people, Dr Vakamacawai says. “It’s part of masculinity to be big. If you eat healthier food and lose weight, people will ask if you are sick. If you don’t serve taro at a ceremony, people will ask what is wrong. For the older generation, if you exercise, they might laugh at you and suggest you pick up a spade instead.”

Attitudes need to change, however, and that’s where the gardening project is gaining traction. The research phase was funded by UC’s Cluster for Community and Urban Resilience (CURe) led by UC Climate Crisis Research Fellow Suliasi Vunibola, with support from the Pacific Ocean and Climate Crisis Assessment Project at UC and the University of the South Pacific. The research found that a project might encourage lifestyle modifications if it was collective, involved exercise, and offered access to affordable, fresh vegetables.

The vegetable garden project ticked all the boxes. Kadavu Canterbury Club Incorporated were identified as a good place to start, because they were an established Pacific group, and Pegasus Health stepped in to fund the first year of the project. By bringing the community together, gardens were established in backyards and planter boxes were provided for those who were renting houses with a ‘no-dig’ policy. Some families learned how to garden for the first time, while others learned to adapt their skills to local conditions.

“Pacific Islanders who are away from home continue to innovate so that the dishes they create remind them of home. That food sovereignty aspect is important because it facilitates cultural connection.” 

Dr Vakamacawai and the team have observed people in the programme enjoying working together, harvesting fresh vegetables, which they can’t always afford to buy from supermarkets, and getting together to share meals. The project was extended to St Francis of Assisi primary school, where half of the garden space is given to students. The team is looking for further funding to continue its work.

In addition to facilitating health improvements, home vegetable gardens also contribute to Aotearoa New Zealand’s carbon zero by 2050 goal, by reducing food miles and building food resilience.

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