Extend the free school meals to everyone
Published on: Sunday, February 16, 2020
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WHEN former education minister Dr Maszlee Malik announced the free school breakfast for children in primary schools programme in August last year, I very much welcomed the initiative. As a working mother to school-going children, one of my parenting concerns is my children’s food intake at school.

Despite the issuance of the Healthy School Canteen Management Guide to curtail the sale of unhealthy food and beverages to students, items such as sausages, chicken nuggets and carbonated drinks can still be found in school cafeterias. School authorities have also not been successful in banning the sale of junk food outside their compounds.

Despite my constant reminders to my children to avoid buying such food, the non-conducive school setting certainly is not helping while peer pressure could influence them in the direction I don’t want them to go.

With nutritious meals being served at school, I would be spared the hassle of preparing packed meals for my children in between doing household chores and getting ready to go to work. I believe a feeding programme that is more educational rather than simply an eating affair is a great way to teach children the importance of a healthy diet and cultivating good eating habits.

However, the programme was scaled down due to uncertainties over the funding, which was estimated to cost between RM1.5bil and RM2bil annually. The latest version that was launched recently appears to be a mere extension of the Supplementary Feeding Programme, known in Bahasa Malaysia as Rancangan Makanan Tambahan (RMT). Although the coverage has been slightly expanded to include more underprivileged students and meals are served before the school session begins (instead of during recess), other aspects of this programme remain the same as RMT.

Introduced in 1979 when the poverty rate in the country was still high, RMT targets children from poor families and aims to address under-nutrition (stunting, underweight and wasting) and classroom hunger (a situation where children study on an empty stomach). With proper eating, students are expected to be healthier, less likely to be absent from school and perform better in class.

RMT has undoubtedly achieved much over the years with the most notable impact being the reduction in protein-energy malnutrition among poor children. However, a feeding programme that solely targets the poor runs the risk of excluding those with real nutrition needs.

As Malaysia becomes more developed, our nutritional challenges have evolved to include obesity and micro-nutrient deficiencies, leading to higher diet-related NCDs (non-communicable diseases) such as diabetes and heart diseases.

The National Health and Morbidity Surveys (NHMS) showed that one in 10 children aged below five years old was either wasted or stunted in 2015; whereas one in three schoolgoing children aged 10 to 17 were overweight or obese in 2017.

While under-nutrition is arguably more concentrated among the poor, the opposite is likely the case for overeating and obesity, making malnutrition a problem that cut across all income classes.

Continuous association of the school feeding programme with overcoming hunger among poor children prevents us from recognising its immense potential in building a healthy and stronger nation in the long term.

In Japan, for example, a nationwide school lunch programme has been instrumental in promoting good health for Japanese citizens. Among OECD countries, Japan records a longer life expectancy and lower obesity rate, and scores high in child nutrition and health indicators.

While not unfounded, concerns about wastage from leftover food can be addressed if the menus are thoughtfully designed to be nutritious yet appetising. However, it is generally recognised that programmes meant “to benefit the poor” tend “to give poor benefits”, and RMT is one of these, unfortunately.

If designed and implemented well, many parents would not mind paying for the programme instead of providing daily pocket money, as shown in the Program Hidangan Berkhasiat di Sekolah (HiTS), a parents-funded pilot breakfast programme run by the Health Ministry in 60 selected schools

The argument that it is “unfair (for the government) to give breakfast to the rich” fails to acknowledge that non-poor children could also go to school on an empty stomach due to their parents’ time constraint in preparing breakfast for them.

NHMS data for 2017 show that only 30pc of students eat breakfast before going to school while the remaining either have breakfast irregularly (60pc) or not at all (10pc). Making breakfast available to all would ensure that students are equipped with the necessary energy and nutrition to start off their day.

Even on the ground of “fairness”, the number of rich children in public schools can be counted, as most would be in private or international schools.

Still, what I find more disturbing about this narrative of “fairness” is the way we are indoctrinating the young on “status” and class segregation, when children are tagged with “rich” or “poor” labels.

Designing the programme as an exclusive benefit to the poor ignores stigmatisation faced by recipients which subsequently could hinder their participation. Some may choose to avoid the food altogether for fear of being looked down upon for being poor.

Making the meals available to all would promote equality as everyone would enjoy the same meal, and also foster social interaction and camaraderie among students.

A universal approach is also more sustainable when all members of society are involved, including the middle and upper classes. Participation of higher income groups can ensure continuous improvements to the programme since they generally command greater political influence and would be able to drive change more effectively.

Beyond the returns on health, education and nation-building, feeding 2.7 million children daily could also benefit the local economy. With carefully designed procurement policies, the programme affords unique opportunities to advance local agriculture and safe food production and promote entrepreneurship.

However, this demands strong inter-sectoral coordination among the relevant ministries including the Education, Health, Agriculture and Agro-based Industry, and Entrepreneur Development and Cooperatives ministries.

At the community level, stakeholders including teachers, parents, nutritionists and local farmers and food suppliers should work closely to prevent the programme from becoming another avenue to enrich parties with vested interests or being monopolised by big corporations.

More importantly, comprehensive monitoring and evaluation mechanisms must be in place to measure its impact and progress. This is key in ensuring continuous financial and as non-financial support.

Hawati Abdul Hamid, Researcher

Khazanah Research Institute

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