Pacific Island Food Culture: PIFR Case Study

Restoring the Pacific Food Culture and Traditional Cuisine: Pacific Island Food Revolution Case Study

Pacific Island Food Revolution (PIFR) is a multimedia television-led campaign designed to restore the Pacific Islands to their original healthy diet. At its heart, this campaign is a local movement already being carried forward by Pacific people; the story of the food IS the story of the people, which is the founding recipe for this movement.
Robert Oliver
Robert Oliver

Executive Director & Board Chair at Pacific Island Food Revolution


Expert Team at TrainingAid


Project Example:
Pacific Island Food Revolution

Pacific island (Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu and more)

Key Lessons:

  • Focus on the story of the local people. To transform menus chosen by tourism businesses and by tourists, you first need to win the hearts and minds of the local people. So the work starts with getting more and more local community members to realise that the solutions already exist - in their own backyards, on the local farms and within their family traditions.
  • Think beyond the plate. Healthy diet is critical to ensuring healthy communities. But the benefits of local food go beyond health and nutrition. Through agritourism local food can support economic opportunities. Growing food locally helps communities become more climate positive and resilient. So think about, and communicate about local food considering all facets of its benefits, impacts and potentials. 
  • Tourism can be part of the solution. Tourism organisations have profound opportunities not only to help ensure the economic viability of local food choices, but also to play a role in reinforcing the messages around local and traditional food cultures. Tourism’s purchasing power already has a significant influence on the local economies. That power can be redirected to supercharge the local food revolutions. 
Pacific Island Food Revolution Team and Contestants
© Pacific Island Food Revolution; Robert Oliver, MNZM, PIFR Executive Director and Host (far Right) and Votausi McKenzie-Reur, Vanuatu Co-host (far Left) with the Vanuatu Season 2 Contestants

The Issue

Over the course of a generation, traditional cuisine has been displaced by processed and imported foods and created an epidemic of non communicable diseases (NCD). Currently “Western style” cuisines dominate Pacific tourism menus, which means that around 75% of food for tourism is imported.

Pacific Island Food Revolution (PIFR) is about the restoration of the traditional local Pacific food cultures, which have largely been displaced by the long tail of colonisation, the more recent effects of globalisation, and the tsunami of marketing of ultra processed foods into the Pacific region. 

While the background of the NCD crisis is quite a depressing topic to think about, this movement is working to flip the narrative and create a brazen celebration of the Pacific local food traditions and cultural identities - and by extension a celebration of the Pacific itself. 

It’s not a development project addressing what locals don’t have. The movement is turning a mirror on the Pacific itself and saying, “we already have the answer”, and that’s why it’s a revolution.

Fijian surgeon and Pacific Island Food Revolution co-host Dr Jone Hawea
Fijian surgeon and Pacific Island Food Revolution co-host Dr Jone Hawea talks about the staggering toll of the NCD crisis in the Pacific, and the importance of changing the mindset.

When the Revolution Takes Root

Rather than seeking to maintain the project for a long time, the ultimate aim of PIFR is to create a situation where it no longer needs to exist. 

What will such a future look like? This is the “theory of change” for this movement: The original food culture is restored to the point that it is the diet of choice domestically, and local Pacific food is embedded into the region's tourism machine. 

And what will it take to achieve such a vision? To transform menus chosen by tourism businesses and by tourists, you first need to win the hearts and minds of the local people. So it starts with an emotional appeal to Pacific people. And it’s not just about health education and nutritional facts around what people eat. It’s about the mindset. To challenge and change the perspective that “everything from overseas is better” and that locally grown traditional foods are “village food”. 

Tourism and Local Food Culture

At its core, tourism is about connecting people. International visitors coming to the Pacific to experience local destinations represent an important opportunity for reinforcing the messages about the values of local food and traditional Pacific cuisine - not only to the local community members themselves, but also to the whole world.

Tourism’s purchasing power already has a significant influence on the local economies across the Pacific. In some cases that power contributes to maintaining the status quo of multinational corporate interests flooding Pacific islands with imported nutrition-poor processed food. But, if more tourism organisations become engaged in supporting local Pacific food cultures, the economic power of tourism can be redirected to supercharge the local food revolutions. 

Hotels, restaurants and other businesses offering local cuisines on their menus will motivate and incentivise more local farmers to focus on native produce, and provide vital links to the marketplace. Beyond local food menus served to tourists, the tourism sector also has key opportunities to boost awareness of local food cultures through agritourism experience offers.   
On the other hand, by prioritising locally produced food, both local communities and tourism organisations are making the most responsible and climate positive choice, reducing food miles and avoiding industrial emissions.  

Positive Impact in Numbers

In 2020 the Busara Center for Behavioural Economics conducted surveys in each country with local partners to assess PIFR’s impacts.  

  • Viewership: 85% in Tonga, 83% in Samoa, 63% in Fiji, and 49% in Vanuatu. 
  • Behavioural Change: 42% of the viewers surveyed have reported a positive change in the way they eat. 
  • Mindset Change: Those surveyed reported that exposure to PIFR now made them see local food as sexy. Local is no longer “village food” but “big TV food”.
  • Positive Food Choices: Comparing those who have watched PIFR and those who have not, the study confirmed a large difference in terms of how likely they are to choose local healthy food. PIFR viewers in Tonga are 262% (!) more likely to make positive food choices than those who have not watched the show, 146% in Samoa, 38% in Vanuatu, and 33% in Fiji.

The survey results and additional insights are shared in PIFR’s impact assessment report. Although PIFR has now shown a clear educational benefit and proven its ability to support key sustainable development goals, convincing donors to support TV shows has not been easy. Most prospective donors were - and many still are - cynical about TV shows, considering the entertainment sector to be trivial.

PIFR Season 3
© Pacific Island Food Revolution; Bertrand Jang, Fiji Co-host Season 3 (left) and Robert Oliver, PIFR Executive Director & Host

But it’s precisely because of the power of reality television to attract and entertain viewers that PIFR has been so successful in promoting the important message on healthy eating and the values of local food, and this potential should be taken seriously. 

Global Partnerships for Local Revolution 

PIFR is about inspiring change and creating a lasting impact. And a key to achieving change is working with partners. As such, PIFR is working to grow partnerships with like-minded organisations such as the Pacific Tourism Organisation (SPTO), Save The Children, UNICEF Pacific and The Asia Foundation. To ensure there will be qualified chefs trained in local cuisine, it’s also important to strengthen educational offers, for example through partnerships with schools such as the University of the South Pacific, as well as culinary institutions like Le Cordon Bleu (PIFR Founder Robert Oliver is an ambassador for Le Cordon Bleu New Zealand). 

With the support of UNICEF, a spin-off series called “Pacific Kids Food Revolution” has been produced, showcasing that local food can be easy, convenient and made very exciting, attracting any child’s taste buds.

The Pacific Kids Food Revolution
The Pacific Kids Food Revolution series was launched in Fiji on World Children’s Day 2020

Through collaboration at the local, regional, and international levels, the message of PIFR can spread more widely and support positive changes across communities. While the visibility of PIFR around the region and globally has prompted more organisations to show interest, securing support continues to be a challenge.  

The travel and tourism sector, with its wide-reaching networks and potential for reinforcing positive images for local food experiences, can play a key role in promoting, facilitating and spreading the word about grassroots local food revolutions taking place across the Pacific. 

This case study has been created based on the Pacific Island Food Revolution story submitted to the 2021 GLP Sustainability Storytelling Competition. PIFR’s submission was the category winner for the “Sustainable Food'' category. See GLP’s video: “Pacific Island Food Revolution: inspiring a nation to celebrate its culinary roots".

In collaboration with GLP, TrainingAid is sharing the various lessons from the stories submitted to the competition as case studies.