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Editorial

Food for thought

/ 12:36 AM September 15, 2016

Some years ago, a health official noted the popularity of instant noodles that had become a staple of poor households because of cost and convenience. The official warned that such a diet would produce a generation of malnourished diabetics as the noodles (or starch) convert to sugar, which was all that this meal offered.

Alas, chronic malnutrition is now a given among Filipino children, according to a recent survey by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute. Based on FNRI data from 2015, one in four (or 26.2 percent) of children aged 0-2 is malnourished—the highest rate in 10 years. Fully a third (or 33.5 percent) of children under five also suffer from chronic malnutrition and stunting, with the rate of stunting rising to an average of 40 percent from 2013 to 2015. It is expected to increase even more in 2016.

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Malnutrition wreaks irreparable damage in children, especially in their formative years.  Health, physical growth and brain development are adversely affected, so that undernourished children have a lower chance of finishing school and becoming highly productive adults. Stunting and iron and iodine deficiencies also impact on the intelligence and learning abilities of children, leading them to a path of lower mental capacity and lower wages.

Which was why reducing the prevalence of underweight children aged 0-6 from 27.3 percent to 13.6 percent was among the Millennium Development Goals set by the Philippines—a goal that it failed to meet.

It is, as Inquirer columnist Cielito Habito has noted, “a silent crisis in our midst”: A full one-third of Filipino children aged 0-5 years are “permanently impaired for life due to stunting traced to hunger and undernutrition.”

The government has put in place supplemental feeding programs to help severely wasted and underweight children through the Departments of Social Welfare and Development and of Education. But the funds allotted these two agencies are just as malnourished considering the number of beneficiaries, observed Sen. Ralph Recto during a recent budget hearing. Currently, daycare centers can only provide P13 per meal, while schools allot P16 for each supplemental meal. Recto’s proposal to restore the P844 million in funding cut from the DSWD food program would raise the allotment to P30 per meal in the 2017 budget.

While dire economic conditions have led to families’ inability to provide adequate food for their children, it is not just lack of food that’s the culprit. Poor feeding and care practices, poor health of pregnant and breastfeeding women, lack of access to health services, and unsanitary conditions have also increased the risk.

And this is where community efforts count. Education campaigns on the importance of good nutrition and proper eating habits, the perils of junk food and empty calories, as well as the benefits of breastfeeding, are some topics that can easily be discussed in family leadership seminars held as part of the DSWD conditional cash transfer program.

Religious groups that regularly conduct catechisms or sponsor daycare centers in churches can mount similar information drives, as well as cooking classes that show mothers from poor communities how to prepare healthy dishes within their budget. Can the schools’ home economics classes do the same? And perhaps idle plots in school can be used as vegetable patches, with the edible produce used as science and heath material as well?

Meanwhile, households that employ live-out help—usually mothers doing part-time work—can take the trouble of educating them on the benefits of foods they may now disdain because these remind them of their humbler beginnings—unpolished rice and unrefined sugar, for instance.

The mass media can pitch in, too, with public service messages on the nutritional merits of certain foods so that such important data are disseminated widely. Information on breastfeeding and proper nutrition can be posted as well in the LRT/MRT trains, or in the waiting areas for commuters.

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Finally, can a group start a food bank—as the folks in Brazil do as part of its “food as a right” approach? The concept involves extra food—often fresh fruit and vegetables from supermarkets or restaurants—that are donated, cleaned and vacuum-frozen, and later distributed to charitable organizations and social service agencies that, in turn, distribute them to indigent households.

Let’s feed the children—and our future as well.

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TAGS: food, health, instant noodles, malnutrition, Millennium Development Goals, nutrition
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