Rebalancing Our Food System

By Dr Amber Hammill

I have decided to lean into my optimism about this report, ‘Rebalancing our food system’ produced by the Public Health Advisory Committee in May 2024. There is a lot to love in here!

It’s a lovely weighty document which I encourage you to enjoy in full, but I thought I’d share my highlights here (CONTAINS SPOILERS!).

In January 2023, the Minister of Health asked the Public Health Advisory Committee to prepare advice on the food system. The whole thing, go to woah. And they did.

What’s in it?

  • The report is transparent about the evidence it draws on (always a good sign) and includes a section on ‘Values Underpinning This Report’. As a qualitative researcher myself, I love to see this. It is a fallacy to assert that any research is objective; all research is guided by the values of the people who fund and produce it. In spelling out their values, they are clear that:

  • All New Zealanders have a right to food for wellbeing

  • Our food system should create a legacy of health and wellbeing for future generations

  • Our food system should protect and care for people and the environment

  • Everyone should have the same access to the healthy food they need


The report lays out a vision for Aotearoa New Zealand of: A food system that works for everyone.


Then they really get into it. They look at the current food system, including food in te ao Māori, how our food system got where it is, and current issues around governance. They are clear that

“For Māori, Te Tiriti o Waitangi also guarantees protection of collective rights when it comes to food. Food growing, gathering, preparing, eating, and sharing encompass fundamental relationships with te taiao (the natural world), tino rangatiratanga (self-determination or sovereignty), handing down of mātauranga (Māori knowledge), and strengthening of connections to whakapapa (ancestry).”

And that’s in the Executive Summary. Seeing reports by public agencies where these fundamental connections, beyond calories and benefits rates and supply chains and minutiae, is super encouraging. Those things are important, but they are changeable. The fundamental role of kai in te ao Māori is not, and it is right to foreground this in the discourse.

They’re health experts, and ‘The Health Imperative for Change’ takes up a good portion of the report. But they’re public health experts (not the armchair kind we all became in 2020) so they talk about health not only in terms of human health, but in terms of the harms our current food system visits on the physical environment and impacts climate change, too. They are clear that “Climate change poses significant risks to our ability to access and afford food that meets our nutritional needs” (p. 19), which echoes the National Science Challenge’s policy briefing on ‘Food system security and disaster recovery' which I wrote about previously.

The gnarly bits – ugly fruit

Having agreed that we all want good food, that it’s fundamental to our being and that we need to get it in ways that don’t harm the beings around us, the report gets to the gnarly bits, and asks ‘What Is Getting In The Way?’ Good question!

And here’s the answer in a nutshell: “We have learned to view food as a commodity”.

The report says;

“Adopting a commodity-based view of food effectively narrows our food system down to just the market, and individuals acting as consumers within that market. Instead of focussing on feeding and nourishing people within a community or wider population, the commodification of food prioritises the generation of financial return. A food system that views food primarily as a commodity is also at odds with a system that sees access to nutritious food as a human right.” (p. 20)

There it is. Unpopular. Accurate. Gnarly. It is refreshing to see this documented for by a public body for an Aotearoa New Zealand government audience. It is something that WWP stakeholders know and are able to say confidently, but it is not something we frequently see delivered this bluntly to this audience in this fashion.

Solutions, please!

Yes, it even suggests what we should do about it: “We need to reset the values and purpose of the food system with greatest weight on health and wellbeing” (p. 28). Boom. Yes.

The report cites examples from Australia, Canada and the UK where there are calls for a ‘Comprehensive National Food Plan and a Minister for Food’, for example. There are other models and many examples for us to follow. We don’t have to make it up as we go. There’s no need for this to be a Number 8 Wire situation.

5 priority actions

The report concludes with five priority actions:

1. That those involved in shaping our food system create and/or further develop a unified food system for all New Zealanders.

2. That those involved in supporting our food system enable local communities including iwi and Pacific communities to ensure that local parts of the food system meet their needs and aspirations.

3. That our central and local government take action and use legislation, policy & regulation levers to create and foster healthy food environments for all New Zealanders.

4. That those involved in our food system take action to ensure all New Zealanders have secure access to enough good food.

5. That those involved in shaping our food system ensure that the work of transforming the food system is accompanied by a programme of data collection, research, monitoring and surveillance.

These priority actions give rise to 13 specific recommendations, and I support them all.

Rainbows and Unicorns

I have, on purpose, focused on the great parts of this document. It feels good to celebrate this piece of work. But I live on the same planet as you, in the same region even! And I know what can happen to insightful, bold, courageous, ambitious reports. This is not the kind of thing we can simply leave to government to take forward. I encourage you to grasp this report in both your hands and take your own kai work forward with confidence. Lean on this report in your funding applications and accountability reports, use it to lobby your council for more local food provision and connections in their own procurement. Rage against food swamps and food deserts. Keep swapping fruit with your neighbours over the back fence. Do what you can to correct the balance at every scale at every opportunity.