Tackling malnourishment among urban poor children — Lim Yi Wei

MARCH 14 — It is a rite of passage for Malaysian youth to leave their kampungs to work in the cities. Today, 75.37 per cent of Malaysians live in urban areas. Almost half of Selangor and Kuala Lumpur’s population were born in other states, putting pressure on urban amenities and services.

 Last December, The Malaysian Insight reported that 28 per cent of children aged 12 to 23 months in Putrajaya are stunted. A recent Unicef study on urban child poverty in KL and Petaling Jaya low-cost flats (PPRs) revealed heartbreaking statistics. Hidden among brightly lit skyscrapers, 22 per cent of PPR children below age 5 are stunted, double the KL average. 23 per cent of children under 5 years old are overweight or obese, six times higher than the KL average (4 per cent).

This is the face of urban child poverty in our national and administrative capitals.

Malnutrition can seriously impair cognitive development. In the long term, economic productivity may be affected when malnourished children eventually join the workforce. The Unicef report found that only 50 per cent of 5 to 6-year-olds in PPRs attend preschool, drastically below the 2015 national statistic (92 per cent). This means that a fair number of pre-schoolers are not only underfed but may face challenges catching up with their peers.

The Unicef report also highlighted how fast food is highly available and accessible. McDonald’s isn’t solely to blame; school canteen food can be equally unhealthy. A UCSI University project audit of 10 KL school canteens since 2013 discovered that 12.5 per cent sold fried food and 4.1 per cent sold banned food.

Interestingly, while easy access to fast food increases its consumption, the converse isn’t always true. Several US studies on increasing fresh food in urban poor areas show limited benefit if eating habits remain unhealthy.

While tackling urban poverty requires the government’s long-term commitment, what can we do in the meantime?

Lessons from the French

According to the Unicef report, 2 per cent of PPR children aged 7-17 years old do not attend school. This is where we can begin, with the 98 per cent.

In the film “Where to Invade Next?”, filmmaker Michael Moore visits French public school canteens to see how school lunches are done. How is this different from our Rancangan Makanan Tambahan (RMT)?

First, the French system prioritises teaching healthy eating routines to all students through daily experience. Children are seated at a table and served courses. They are required to sit a minimum of 30 minutes so that they can eat properly and socialise - to learn commensality (la commensalité), e.g. the enjoyment of food and company. In contrast, Malaysian school recess crams eating and playtime into 30 minutes or less!

Second, the menu. Each meal has a vegetable, salad or soup starter; a protein-packed main course with a side of greens or grains; a cheese course; and dessert that usually has fruit. The vegetable starter is intentional - because hungry kids will eventually come around to eating veggies when they are presented first. To prevent children from developing a taste for junk food, vending machines in schools are banned. Imagine, one of the French children in the film has never tasted Coca-Cola!

Third, the French system is decentralised. Laws are enacted nationally, but canteens are run by local municipalities. Municipalities can set prices along a national sliding scale, giving them flexibility to subsidise poor children while keeping average costs affordable. The locally-elected mayor also reviews canteen menus on a monthly basis with the school chef, city and school officials and a dietician.

Ideas and initiatives

French policies cannot be directly transposed onto Malaysian schools, but their underlying principles can be adopted.

The idea of city councils tackling urban child malnourishment is not far-fetched. The PJ City Food Truck, by the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ), provides free breakfast thrice a week for urban poor children in 12 designated schools.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) must delay no more in educating and regulating school canteen operators. In January 2018, MOH’s Healthy School Canteen Management Guide listed banned foods such as cordial drinks and keropok. The problem: if conventional knowledge is that these foods are unhealthy, why have they remained canteen staples up to 2018?

Besides taxing sugar-sweetened beverages, it may be worth studying the impact of zoning restrictions on fast food outlets so that they cannot operate within a certain radius of schools and kindergartens.

Community participation is also important. In 2016, the Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government (KPKT) announced the introduction of urban farming in PPRs. While this is an interesting move, PPR household heads work longer hours (while paid less) and may not have the energy or time to participate. Supporting initiatives may be needed. For example, joint ventures between urban farmers and PPRs, through which farmers get incentives (e.g. rebates on annual assessments) and PPR families can obtain fresh produce at affordable rates.

Where does Parliament stand on urban child poverty?

Urban child poverty is a wide-angled issue. This article barely scratches the surface. How can we improve social protection for these children and their parents? How effective are targeted subsidies, like Selangor’s Kasih Ibu Smart Selangor (KISS) programme for poor mothers? How do we manage mental stress caused by deprivation and give confidence to PPR children?

My point is, conversations must happen.

It is disappointing to see Parliament treat the Unicef report so nonchalantly. Klang MP Charles Santiago’s motion to debate the report was rejected on grounds of “not being of public interest”. Yesterday, Education Minister Mahdzir Khalid downplayed the report. Perhaps the Unicef report triggers discomfort because it disputes the official narrative that “everything is awesome”, to quote The Lego Movie.

If we truly, honestly believe that children are our country’s future, we cannot stay silent in the face of a government that would rather pretend that urban child poverty does not exist.

* Lim Yi Wei is political secretary to Tony Pua, MP for Petaling Jaya Utara and a councillor with the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ).

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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