[Pictured: Longovuka Misi (left) and Jane Martin, her mentor (right)]
Tongan Australia Awards scholar, Longovuka Misi is being mentored by public health advocacy expert, Jane Martin, to promote healthy diets for non-communicable disease prevention through the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI).
Currently undertaking her Master of Human Nutrition and Population Health at Deakin University, former teacher Longovuka is being guided by Jane to grow her networks and capacity to drive long-lasting health progress in her community.
The WLI Leadership & Mentoring pair share an interest in improving population health through the reduction of key risk factors among children – to prevent the development of conditions such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and cancer later in life.
Before taking up her Australia Award to advance her understanding of the biological, social and policy-related aspects of human nutrition, Longovuka was a high-school teacher passionate about preventing non-communicable diseases.
“I believe the foundation of a healthy dietary lifestyle should begin at home, whereby children will learn healthy eating habits and be exposed to a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy home-cooked meals,” she says.
To ensure that children and their families establish healthy diets and access nutritious foods needed to promote population health in Tonga, Longovuka believes collaboration between schools, community leaders and governments is vital.
But while she had always aspired to use her skills and knowledge to help people make health food choices, Longovuka felt that a lack of confidence prevented her from engaging with and sharing this knowledge with the adult population.
Instead, she says, “I just stuck to teaching my students.”
What eventually inspired Longovuka to join WLI was her “desire to fulfil my leadership potential and build my confidence and capability to drive healthy dietary change and innovations that can combat the development of non-communicable diseases in my country”.
Through the WLI Leadership& Mentoring program, Longovuka was partnered with mentor Jane, who has over 30 years’ experience working in public health advocacy, tobacco control, alcohol policy and obesity prevention in Australia.
“Much of my work focuses on prevention, involving advocacy to create healthy communities and to give children, in particular, the best start in life,” Jane says.
Currently, the Executive Manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition (in partnership with Cancer Council Victoria, Diabetes Victoria, and GLOBE) and Alcohol and Obesity programs for the Cancer Council Victoria, Jane works in collaborations and partnerships to prevent diseases that stem from the risk factors of diet, weight and alcohol.
"My work involves using policy and regulatory approaches to reduce the impact of the ultra-processed food industry’s commercial influence, which puts profits above health.”
“This could be regulation to reduce the harmful sugars in products sold for babies and toddlers ... and improving the availability of healthy foods, and reducing processed foods, in settings such as schools, hospitals and community centres,” Jane adds.
She also spearheaded the development of a consensus platform of recommended actions to address obesity, in collaboration with GLOBE (the WHO Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention) at Deakin University.
Based on national and international recommendations, the platform and report, Tipping the Scales, united more than 35 leading community, public health, medical and academic groups to call for urgent Federal Government action “to reduce the enormous strain excess weight and poor diets are having on the nation’s physical and economic health”.
One of the recommendations of the report led to the development Australia's National Obesity Strategy, which as of November 2021 is “almost finalised".
Jane also continues to contribute to the public health conversations in the media and collaborates on research.
In order to support Longovuka's career and development goals, Jane hopes to help build Longovuka's ability to influence and engage with her community to make dietary change.
"I hope that I am able to empower [Longovuka] and to help her develop her skills to amplify her impact in her community through her networks and knowledge,” says Jane.
Jane is also sharing ideas and promoting discussion of “ways to develop [Longovuka's] projects to benefit her community and have the best chance of success.”
One of the community projects that Longovuka aims to progress involves empowering and building the capacity of Tongan women to sustainably and knowledgeably prepare healthy meals for their families using their own fresh produce.
“This project will aim to educate and empower women preparing healthy meals for their families using fresh local produce grown themselves in a community garden and in their own homes,” Longovuka explains.
She believes that the establishment of community kitchens and gardens will increase access to fresh produce while creating an opportunity for nutritional education.
Already, Longovuka says that Jane “has helped me develop my community intervention project by giving me real issue scenarios from her experiences to take into consideration, and learn to incorporate them into the Tongan context”.
Both Longovuka and Jane stress the importance of tackling diet and lifestyle-related challenges early in order to give children the best chance of preventing non-communicable disease development later in life.
“Diet and unhealthy weight have a large impact on the development of Type 2 diabetes. Here [in Australia] we have a quarter of 3-year-olds above a healthy weight, rising to nearly half of young people aged 18 to 24,” Jane explains.
Longovuka adds, “According to the International Diabetes Federation, the [rate] of diabetes in Tonga in 2020 was 13.1 percent”; a figure she says has doubled since 1973.
“So, young children are not getting the best start in life and nor are many young adults,” adds Jane.
“Further, the risk factors of diet and weight-related diseases have been devastating in our Aboriginal communities, who have gone through a dramatic dietary transition in a relatively short period of time post colonisation.”
While strong examples of leadership in non-communicable disease prevention are evident in Australia and Tonga, Jane and Longovuka believe more work needs to be done to address the unhealthy food environments in which these health problems are occurring.
“The issue of unhealthy weight and poor diets does not merely come down to an issue of lack of willpower on behalf of individuals … what we are seeing is the success and powerful influence stemming from the activities of the ultra-processed food industry pushing their cheap, heavily promoted and easily available products into our society,” says Jane.
This is not only bad for population health but contributes to climate change and undermines planetary health.
Longovuka adds, “Changing the unhealthy food environment with healthy food subsidies to support healthy eating behaviours, in addition to educating people on how to eat healthily, affordably, are areas I would love to work in.”
“It has indeed been an honour having a highly experienced public health professional such as Jane Martin be my mentor. We share an interest in improving health through the reduction of key risk factors such as obesity and diet,” she says.
Jane explains, “I have really enjoyed my regular discussions with Longovuka and imagine that it will be a relationship and friendship that continues into the future.”
Longovuka and Jane are participants of WLI's 2021 Leadership & Mentoring program. For more information on the program and to learn more about other thriving partnerships, visit: Women's Developmental Leadership Program.