Healthy Food

Healthy food to fuel growth

PETALING JAYA: Addressing growing children’s nutritional needs is crucial to effectively tackle malnutrition and stunting among children, say nutritionists and health experts.

They welcomed the increased allocation for food aid programs at public kindergartens and primary schools.

Currently, there are two food aid programs – the Preschool Food Aid (BMP) for all children and the Supplementary Food Aid (RMT) for pupils from underprivileged families.

The current rates for BMP and RMT meals are fixed at RM2 and RM2.50 respectively per child in Peninsula Malaysia, and RM2.25 and RM3 per child in Sabah and Sarawak.

The rate for BMP is expected to increase by 50 sen per child while RMT’s rate will increase by RM1 per child.

Consultant pediatrician Datuk Dr Amar-Singh HSS said a universal preschool and school breakfast program should be introduced to ensure the meals served meet the nutritional demands of children, as practiced in many countries.

“Good data on social determinants of health are required to identify those with inequities and target support for them,” he added.

While the allocations for BMP and RMT have increased, he said the hike was small, at 21% and 24% respectively, and the sum could be inadequate.

Under Budget 2023, the Education Ministry received a total of RM55.2bil.

Of the amount, RM108mil was set aside for BMP, up from the previous RM89mil and set to benefit some 240,000 students while RMT got RM777mil, an increase from RM625mil and set to benefit some 700,000 students.

According to statistics from the Health Ministry’s Adolescent Nutrition Survey, as part of the National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) 2017, more than 8% of school children were stunted.

“Serial NHMS surveys also showed an increasing stunting rate from 6.6% (2011) to 17.7% (2015) and shot up further to 21.8% in 2019.

“These suggest that we are regressing to become like poorer developing nations, which have 25% stunting rates,” said Dr Amar, an Honorary Senior Fellow at the Galen Center for Health and Social Policy.

Stunting also brought significant implications as it implied poorer cognitive development that could mean a lifetime poverty trap, he said.

“We must remember that stunting starts in the womb, so we must identify mothers with malnutrition in pregnancy, support them financially and only through good nutrition can we end stunting in children,” he added.

Nutrition Society of Malaysia president Dr Tee E Siong said BMP and RMT could also be leveraged to instill values ​​of healthy eating among children.

“The long-term measure should be promoting nutritional education and advocating healthier eating habits from a young age.

“We’re not talking about conducting an entire syllabus, but rather having some three to five-minute lessons whenever the food is distributed,” he suggested.

Dr Tee said engagements should be held between canteen operators and the Health and Education ministries, to ensure healthier food options.

“It would be useful if we made the effort to educate our children on healthy eating, but less nutritious food is still being served in schools,” he said.

Malnutrition in the short term could induce negative effects such as being underweight and possibly resulting in children having a weaker immune system, he added.

“The weaker immune system could result in them having a higher tendency to fall sick, resulting in absenteeism.

“Falling sickness also causes a further lack of appetite, potentially leading to under-eating and children becoming even more underweight,” he said, adding that long-term malnutrition could also lead to stunting.

He said if a stunted child begins to build an appetite, it might cause the child to eat more and possibly become overweight or obese.

“This potentially brings a higher prevalence of non-communicable diseases in their later years,” he added.

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