The quest for healthy, cheap school meals

WE know the statistics that Malaysian children are the most obese in Asia and suffering from poor nutrition. Some have denied the validity of these findings but if you were to look around, you might just be convinced of the accuracy of these studies. The double burden of over and undernutrition should be an alarming matter for the country, but we seem apathetic or indifferent still.

Reports have shown that 20% of all medical costs in Malaysia are obesity-related. This costs the country RM9.8 billion of the gross domestic product. Now imagine what that figure will be in 10 or 20 years when today's already unhealthy children are adults especially since obesity rates among the young are rapidly rising.

We are no more at the stage of heading towards a crisis but rather we are in the midst of a health crisis. We just don't seem to acknowledge it yet.

The obvious culprits when discussing eating habits of schoolchildren are the public school canteens. The quality of food, hygiene in the preparation and the cleanliness of the canteens have been blamed and the different ministries in charge have tried to address this with guidelines, training, spot-checks and the like. But still there are so many gaps in addressing the issues and improving the situation.

While it is common belief that healthy food should be accessible and affordable, we do not deny that it is expensive to eat healthy in Malaysia or even sell healthy food especially with the earning capacity of the majority. Ideally what we want is for the canteens to be spotless, clean, food preparation carried out with the highest hygiene standards. Food packaged in responsibly sourced materials that are friendly to the environment and we want clean, nutritious, unprocessed food to be sold in school canteens. We want it tasty and appealing and we want all this at the right price point.

Students should be able to afford this on the pocket money they get. Parents should not have to feel the pinch and canteen operators should be able to make a decent living. When we talk about canteen food – the onus is placed on the canteen operators and rightly so. But what tends to happen is that we only focus on the deliverables and point fingers instead of understanding the situation and the different moving parts that contribute to why children are not eating the right food. So before we try and prescribe, we need to know what is happening on the ground.

In terms of physical space, school canteens come in different shapes and sizes. Some are equipped with appropriate kitchen gadgets that allow for healthier meal preparations like an oven, while some do not even have the space for a fridge.

Which means that these canteen operators then have go to the market daily at the crack of dawn because meals have to be ready before the children get dropped off in schools around 7am. Whatever the operator buys on that day has to be used because their kitchen either has no space to house basic equipment like a fridge or it has no doors and any equipment is vulnerable to theft. If all the food prepared is not sold, then they have to bear the loss.

Next we need to understand that canteens serve anywhere from 140 students to over 2,000 students a day. Recess is limited to 20 minutes and to ensure efficient service, canteen operators need extra hands and space. But to get workers who are willing and able is not easy – something most people in the food and beverage industry would attest to. With limited kitchen space, extra hands and the sheer number of meals to prepare, it becomes a cramped space but it also means that more hands need to be paid to ensure all the students have enough time to buy the food and eat it in the 20 minutes they have for recess. When the canteens are not able to serve all students, the canteen operators are the ones who are reprimanded.

Then we look at the other costs that we as consumers don't see ... rental, electricity, water, cleaning essentials, pest control.

Rental of canteens vary. Some pay three figures a month while others have to set aside more than RM2,500 a month for rent. These are costs that the operators have to factor in to the price of food besides the cost of ingredients and packaging.

At a cerebral level, we probably can understand and accept these costs, but because it is a school, we also expect that the meals should be cheap. After all children tend to have smaller appetites and there is a ready clientele and high volume. But is this all true? If it's a primary school, perhaps the portions might be smaller but that does mean the children's bellies are full. But if it's a secondary school, neither the portions nor kids are little. So how much should a school meal be?

Some children only have 30 sen to spare. What does a canteen operator then do when 30 sen does not pay for a plate of nasi lemak? The most some children have to spend is usually RM2 a day. Now this is not just recess money for some – it is RM2 for breakfast and for many it has to last till 6pm when their parents come home with some food for their evening meal.

In these instances, what is the profit margin canteen operators are allowed to make when the spending capacity of their ready clientele is so low? Surely, they have to make a living too? Of course in wealthier areas, the spending capacity can be anywhere from RM5 to RM15 a day, but all that money does not just go to the canteen.

Natalie is co-director of MakanLah! a social enterprise with the vision of making healthy food accessible to all children in Malaysian schools.

Part two of this article will lay out some of the challenges faced by canteen operators and provide some suggestions on how to reprogramme the food system in public school canteens.