Better canteen food for school children


THE sale of junk food at school canteens is an old issue – first brought up by the Nutrition Society of Malaysia as far back as 1980 and highlighted periodically over the last 20 years.

Regrettably, little improvement has been made despite ample guidelines for school authorities and canteen operators to follow.

Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai has warned that continued selling of unhealthy food and snacks in schools could lead to the nation raising future generations of overweight students and  obese grown-ups.

He urged operators to abide by the revised 1985 School Canteen Guidelines (SCG), jointly prepared by the Ministries of Education and Health.

There is no denying schooI canteens are still selling fried and high-calorie food. Although some are considered “appropriate” under the updated SCG, dieticians nowadays do not encourage their consumption by children and suggest replacing them with more nourishing meals.

The drawback is most children tend to shun healthy food probably because they are not as tasty with less or no sugar, salt and preservatives added. Canteen operators are left with no choice but to revert to the less healthy but “more sellable” stuff.

As one operator pointed out, no fried chicken, no business.

Many children also dislike eating health-giving vegetables

and usually leave them untouched on the plate. Apparently, these youngsters are not educated on nutrition – why it’s important to separate the kernel from the husk. If children are taught early to appreciate it’s the eating habit that makes or breaks their health, they are likely to be more selective about what eat to stay healthy.

According to nutrition experts, there is no good or bad food – only good or bad diets.

“Health problems are caused not just by a specific food but rather the obsesogenic (obesity-causing) environment where food is omnipresent. Mechanisation is also causing people to be more sedentary.

“These all lead to chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease,” explained Associate Professor Dr Poh Bee Koon, head of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s  Department of Nutrition and Dietetics.

She pointed out that while school canteens were not entirely to blame, they were still the main suppliers of daily food for school children and, thus, had an important role in promoting good eating habits.

A most common mistake among parents is packing their children off to school without breakfast. Studies have shown one in three kids do not get any breakfast everyday.

Dr Poh advised giving schoolchildren, not used to eating early in the morning, at least a nutritious drink — even better

a slice of bread or a bowl of cereal. According to research, children who do not have breakfast tend to perform below those who do.

As the search for the perfect diet (if there is any) remains elusive, people, generally, can eat what they like but a diet with less unhealthy food is the key. And since Nature dictates that penalty should follow excess, everything should be taken in moderation. Even if something is good, too much of it can be bad.

Wholesome diets are important to the development of a robust and healthy society. Government agencies and NGOs such as consumers’ movements should campaign actively to drive

home the importance of nutritious sustenance.

This calls for more than just asking fast food chains to cut sugar, salt and fats. The campaign must be multi-pronged with healthy dieting as the core message to especially the younger generation. Manufacturers of food and drinks and eateries catering to both the public and schools should also make the effort to acquire a proper understanding of nutrition.

Assunta Hospital dietician manager Ho Shiau Fen has a very sound cooking tip to offer — use garlic and onions to add taste to food instead of seasoning products such as salt and sugar high in fat content. She also said there are no better substitutes to obtaining  full nutritional benefits than from natural food sources.

As society becomes more affluent, people tend to seek out the good life. Healthwise though, over-indulgence can exact a heavy price. Indeed, for efficiency and productivity, we can ill-afford a nation of fat and unhealthy people. By right, diets should improve with guidebooks so easily obtainable these days. But heaps of literature alone will not eradicate bad eating habits. As with other similar issues, nothing much will change (for the better) with lax enforcement or a laissez-faire attitude.