What’s the bigger picture?
Dire indeed is the picture painted of the nutritional status of Filipino children who are, if nothing is done in the interim, doomed to a lifetime of ill-health and slow if not backward development.
There is more at stake here than just poor school performance or abysmally low scores in international academic tests. Crude as it sounds, dumb children inevitably grow into dumb adults. And a nation of idiots is doomed to wallow in ignorance and tolerate misgovernance, incapable of carrying out the most basic responsibilities of good citizenship.
Unicef Philippines representative Oyunsaikhan Dendevnorov sounded the alarm in an op-ed that appeared in this paper late last year. One in three Filipino children under five years, said a Unicef report on “Children, Food and Nutrition,” are stunted, meaning they are too short for their age. Seven percent of children, on the other hand, are “too thin” for their height.
On the other end of the spectrum of concern, one-tenth of Filipino adolescents are now overweight, not only because they eat too much, but because they have been raised on a diet of unsuitable, unhealthy food. To be sure, malnutrition and stunted development are caused by more than just hunger or lack of food.
For one, there are the choices that parents make or are made available to them. In the wake of the Taal crisis, for instance, most of the evacuees, before the establishment of soup kitchens, subsisted on meals made up of instant noodles and canned goods, most of which are carbohydrate-heavy, salted, and steeped in all kinds of preservatives.
The same limited choices face caregivers in ordinary times and settings, with little or no access to fresh and nutritious vegetables, grains, fruits. Unicef points out that Filipino children are “surviving but not thriving,” with 44 percent of children from ages 6-23 months not fed fruit or vegetables, and 59 percent not fed eggs, dairy products, fish or meat. Among these healthy choices is milk.
Breast milk is crucial in the first days and weeks of a newborn’s life since it contains all the nutrients for physical and mental development. And yet too many mothers report that they stop breastfeeding after only a month or two, turning to breast milk substitutes for convenience (though infant formula is much more expensive than breast milk, which comes free).
Recently, milk made the headlines after Sen. Cynthia Villar, during a budget hearing of the Philippine Carabao Center (PCC) and the National Dairy Authority (NDA), two agencies tasked with promoting milk production in the country, took the bodies to task for supposedly doing a poor job and thus “contributing to the poor academic performance of Filipino students.” The senator, who used the common pejorative “bobo” (dumb) to describe Filipino children, blamed the two agencies for failing to promote the development of the dairy industry, with “99 percent” of milk available in the local market confined to imported brands whose prices are beyond the budget of poor families. “That’s why you’re partly to blame for the dumbness of children,” Villar lashed out.
To be fair, other criticisms that Villar aired are valid. She pointed to the skewed priorities of the agencies that expend their budgets on items like vehicles and office supplies rather than on reaching out to farmers to jumpstart dairy production and output. But to put matters into context, it takes more than a generous and accessible milk supply to produce healthy and smart children. As with so many other problems in this country, the poor diets of many families are rooted in poverty.
Poverty plus ignorance, since even when money is available, many caregivers are more apt to choose convenience over nutritional value, cost and accessibility over genuinely healthy fare. The bigger picture, of course—if only Villar cared to explore the issue more—would touch on the perennially laggard performance of the agriculture sector itself, which includes the dairy industry.
How come it’s become way more expensive to produce local milk, such that cheap imports have become the default pick for the populace? Who has really dropped the ball in sufficiently developing the local dairy industry and getting adequate and affordable fresh milk to Filipino households? Surely it can’t be the two relatively obscure agencies of the PCC and NDA alone. A hectoring senator may have shone the spotlight on the hidden crisis of malnutrition, hidden hunger, and stunting. But she could also have dug deeper to look into the causes of this health crisis and come up with solutions to better serve coming generations.
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