NOV 9 — The Education Minister’s announcement that the government will study a free breakfast scheme for schoolchildren in the B40 group, should be lauded.
Researchers have found that school meal programmes like free breakfasts have positive effects on both health and cognitive outcomes. A 2007 review of 18 different studies discovered that school meal programmes in developing countries not only improved physical growth in disadvantaged schoolchildren, but also saw an average increase in school attendance and mathematics performance. In the United Kingdom, free ‘breakfast clubs’ in primary schools were shown to boost reading, writing and maths results by the equivalent of two months’ progress over the course of a year. In Bangladesh, its School Feeding Programme raised school enrolment by 14.2 percent, increased school attendance by about 1.3 days a month, and increased test scores by 15.7 percent points.
Implementing a similar programme will be crucial to tackle food insecurity in Malaysian schools. The Ministry of Education’s own guidelines for its Supplementary Food Programme [Rancangan Makanan Tambahan (RMT)] stated that it found around 35 percent of primary school pupils display signs of undernutrition, while between 15-20 percent of schoolchildren experience ‘invisible hunger’ from skipping meals.
But the Minister’s idea must go further to cover primary school children from all income levels, not just those in the B40 group.
Malaysian children suffer from what experts call ‘the double-burden of malnutrition’, where both undernutrition and overnutrition (obesity) exist in the same population. But this double burden is not just a ‘B40 problem’ – the reality is far more complicated than that. While it is more prevalent among the poor, child stunting - which is an indicator for chronic malnutrition in children - cuts across all income levels in Malaysia. In 2016, 29.8 per cent of children below five years from households with less than RM1000 monthly income were stunted, while 17.4 percent of children in households earning more than RM 5000 were stunted – both figures significantly higher than the average 6.9 percent rate of other upper middle income countries. When it comes to obesity, research has shown that the prevalence of obesity rises with income. This means that tackling nutrition issues in children cannot be confined to only the B40 group.
Secondly, widening free breakfast to all children regardless of income can help defeat the unintended consequences of stigmatisation that may arise from an approach that only targets children from B40 households. Studies have shown that most children are aware of cultural stereotypes by 10 years old, while children from stigmatised groups experience this at an even younger age. In 2015, 29% of 1.4 million eligible children in the United Kingdom did not participate in the Free School Meal programme – the programme was deemed by children to be embarrassing. Children described these free meals as ‘a very specific and visible issue of difference which clearly leads to fears of them being labelled and bullied’. In Canada, it was the parents who were resistant to send children to school food programmes due to this stigma.
In 2003, New York City made school breakfast free for all students regardless of income. Researchers found that participation in this programme increased, with a rise in children who were already previously eligible for free meals.
Moving away from an income-tested breakfast would help dispel the sense that such programmes are only for the poor, and ensure that it does not push away children who are most in need of it. It also removes the stigma of parents having to ‘declare’ their poverty in order to obtain aid.
Thirdly, a universal approach would be time- and cost-efficient and help avoid the usual pitfalls associated with targeting based on income or need.
While targeted programmes can have ostensibly lower costs and may ensure resources are focussed on more vulnerable groups, a free-for-all breakfast would reduce the administrative costs of verifying the eligibility of recipients. Further, it will lighten the workload of Malaysian teachers already burdened with administrative duties, allowing them to focus on their teaching.
Crucially, a universal breakfast programme can function as a safety net that can, at the very least, guarantee that children have one nutritious meal a day in the event of an unforeseen financial emergency in the family. The Ministry’s existing Rancangan Makanan Tambahan is simply inadequate to perform this role, as it is only available for schoolchildren from households earning less than RM 580-660 a month (figure varies between Semenanjung and Sabah/Sarawak). This is simply a ridiculous threshold that leaves many children unprotected.
It also ensures that the child is protected from the ‘cliff effect’. This is where families can lose important welfare assistance once they gain a very marginal salary rise that takes their household income beyond the targeted income threshold. The value of the assistance that is lost is often larger than the income raise. For example, while a family now earns RM 50 more a month, they may lose hundreds more ringgit worth of welfare aid.
Indeed, it is undeniable that free breakfast for all would cost the government more. However, it represents an opportunity to not only provide for the needs of our children today, but possibly transform the practices and habits of generations to come. During the 1930s in Norway, the government introduced to its universal school meal programme the famous ‘Oslo breakfast’ - bread with margarine, cheese, a glass of milk and a piece of fruit. The prevailing nutrition knowledge of that time posited that a hot meal may be detrimental to schoolchildren’s health and development. Today, the Oslo breakfast is ubiquitous as the Norwegian meal of choice not only in school lunches, but also at work. In 2017, Norway was classed the world’s healthiest country - the outcome of astute policymaking of which the Oslo breakfast was a small but effective component.
With that being said, a universal breakfast scheme for all primary schoolchildren in Malaysia would not even be too expensive, especially after accounting for administrative costs saved from not having to establish a new means-based verification system.
Using the highest figure of RM 3 per student under the existing Rancangan Makanan Tambahan allocation, breakfast for all 2,685,403 primary school students with 200 schooling days will cost approximately RM 1.6 billion per annum - not even 3 percent of the Ministry of Education’s RM 60.2 billion budget. Other interventions beyond the space of this discussion - such as incorporating breakfast into the classroom during teaching hours - can also be explored to further enhance the outcomes of this universal breakfast scheme.
It is a small investment that can help secure the future of our children.
Surely they are worth it?
*Derek Kok is a public policy researcher at a Malaysian think tank.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.