Take up the challenge and choose water.

That’s the message from an Auckland school after its first year of being sugary drink-free.

Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Hoani Waititi is one of several west Auckland schools that have moved to a water-only drinks policy. This has been supported by Healthy Families Waitakere to help influence healthier school environments.

Hoani Waititi made the change over 12 months ago when Healthy Families Waitakere helped secure funding from the Trusts Community Foundation to provide schools with new water fountains, replacing its lone out-of-date water fountain.

The change has already had a big impact on Tiraroa Hetaraka. The Year 12 student has lost weight and been inspired to live a much more active life, regularly working out at the school’s gym.

“We used to have only one water fountain which was not in the best of shape,” he says. “So it was normal for everyone to have fizzy or energy drinks instead.”

“Now we have six modern water fountains which we all use to fill up our water bottles. We’ve all taken up the challenge of drinking only water at school and you can definitely see the health benefits. It’s been pretty good for us, so no doubt it would good for other schools too.”

Healthy Families Waitakere manager Kerry Allan says the popularisation of sugary drinks is contributing to poor dental health, learning outcomes and reduced overall health in young people.

“To combat issues like obesity and chronic diseases we need to make significant changes,” she says. “One simple change is making water the first choice of drink so it’s vital we make it readily available for our children and whānau.”

Griffa Rivers is a kaiako (teacher) at Hoani Waititi and says students are more aware of the importance of selecting water over sugary drinks. She has even noticed a change in her own daughter, Javan, a current Year 13 student.

“Whenever Javan feels tired before kapa haka she’s quick to mention that it’s because she hasn’t had enough water to drink,” she says. “Even when we do a road trip and stop for a meal she will choose water.”

“That’s been the best part – seeing our rangatahi carry that message over into their life away from the classroom. When we began this initiative I thought it would be a while before we saw a change in the culture of what we drink. To see it happening only a year later is awesome.”

Over 40 schools have benefited so far from the support of Healthy Families Waitakere and funding from the Trusts Community Foundation. Healthy Families Waitakere has been supporting schools since 2016 to implement water-only policies, strengthen their messaging and help to improve the infrastructure to support water as the first choice of drink.