Beyond school canteens

POOR nutrition rates and some of the challenges faced by canteen operators such as dealing with vendors and nearby convenience stores were covered in The quest for healthy, cheap school meals published on Tuesday.

We see canteen operators trying hard to follow ministry guidelines such as no processed or deep-fried food, no crisps and junk food, no carbonated drinks, no artificial colouring, no chocolate, cream or sweets including "asam" or "jeruk", no ice or ice-cream, no tea, coffee or their 3-in-1 counterparts and no energy drinks; but all that a student has to do is step out of the school gates and get his or her fix from vendors.

So we cannot even insist that the canteen operators only sell healthy food so that the kids won't have an option, because they do have options.

Sometimes those options are even on the school grounds just sold in a different section of the school because those guidelines are only for what is sold in the canteen not what is sold in other parts of the school.

While the rules state that there should be no vendors in the school compound, who is enforcing this?

Many of the people selling this junk are parents of the schoolchildren, and they are trying to make a living.

So if you know their hardships and know that by calling the authorities, it will then cause more hardship, would you have the heart to do it?

Then there is the challenge of the nearby convenience shop.

How does the canteen operator who is not allowed to sell instant noodles compete and what does the canteen operator say to the child who asks for hot water for the cup of noodles he just bought?

And if the canteen operator provides the hot water, he faces a telling-off, but if he doesn't the child has no money to buy canteen food and goes hungry but at the end of the day, the canteen operator has lost income to a grocery store.

The rules are clear but there are loopholes and so the school co-operative which is supposed to sell books and stationery ends up selling prohibited food items. Why? Well technically the rules only apply to the canteen.

In some schools, the teachers are selling the prohibited items.

Can the canteen operator complain about this? Think about it. Their contract is based on how much the teachers like their food and to a huge extent them. So the dynamics are difficult to manage.

If they cry foul will their daily interactions be pleasant and will they get proportional marks which some schools give to canteen operators.

There are also instances where the teachers have decided what the price of food items should be without looking at the costs involved. So the customer decides how much the food is worth even after being told the price. Is this a sustainable business model?

We haven't yet talked about the number of school days, and holidays where the canteen has zero customers.

On average there are 200 days of school a year, but that does not mean the canteen has 200 days of sales.

If there is a book sale in the school for example their food sales are less, and during the fasting month either the canteen closes and if it stays open, they don't make much.

Then there is the issue of the folded torn money.

After the canteen rush-hour is done and it is time to count the money, what looks like a folded RM1, is actually a fully torn or halved RM1 note.

Meaning that some children are cheating the system and taking advantage of the rush and getting two items for the price of one.

When I heard this, my heart broke. We see the struggle of the canteen operator and the unfairness to then be cheated of their hard earned money but to be cheated by a hungry child.

How do we rectify this? Yes, there is the RTP programmes that provide meals for children who come from lower-income households. But what about those who don't qualify but still need it?

A few weekends ago, I had the opportunity to speak with a few canteen operators as part of a programme organised by MakanLah! a social enterprise with the vision of making healthy and delicious food accessible for all children in schools.

Together with the Agak-Agak Initiative under the auspices of the Malaysian Collective Impact Initiative, we spoke with seven canteen operators and what you just read are some of the challenges they face. So what is the prescription?

Honestly we don't know which to tackle first. What we do agree is the need for an increased political commitment to tackle undernutrition and obesity in Malaysia and to transform our eating habits and food culture. What does that mean in tangible terms?

We need a coalition of government officials, nutritionist, scientists, parents to be advocates for Malaysia's children and enact food laws that will be enforced.

It is not just about talking and highlighting the issues, it is really about doing because it is hard work. It is easy to talk about how much sugar is in drinks but to actually look at what is happening within the society that causes parents to not have time or the resources to feed their kids?

Or why children are coming to school hungry. How do we tackle the vendors who in some cases even pass the "illegal" goods through the school gates, and how do we educate the masses about what is real food?

Do we follow in the footsteps of Chile which banned junk by imposing marketing restrictions, labelling rules and mandatory packaging redesigns? Do we stop food companies from using mascots and hidden toys? Do we impose a high soda or sugar tax?

I cannot deny the lure of Malaysian food. Walking into a school canteen, brought back memories and even though I know every single item that I saw was totally unhealthy, the school kid in me wanted to eat everything.

It was very difficult not to eat the keropok lekor even though I was hungry and wanted it.

But there was nothing healthy being sold in that canteen that morning even though they followed the rules. But they also serve what the kids like "apa nak buat, budak suka" said the canteen operator.

MakanLah! has surveyed over 3,000 Malaysian schoolchildren and when the students were asked what they would like sold in their school canteens, a lot of the them said fruit and yogurt.

Of course this survey is done after they have been given a lecture about eating healthy but you have to wonder why not sell fruit – the overheads are less, and you save on cooking time compared to say making a curry puff for example.

So not only is it about changing the mindsets of students, it is also changing the mindsets of the canteen operators and also the parents and teachers.

This is not an easy task as our base ingredients themselves are unhealthy and we love the crispy bits and sweet colourful drinks and kuih. That is part of our culture but it cannot keep being our rebuttal.

How do we educate the masses to choose fresh chillies at RM6 a kilo instead of the cheaper, unhealthier but familiar option of bulk chilli boh?

The only way is to make sure the cheap chilli boh does not contain high levels of benzoic acid.

But how do we ensure this? One way is to standardise the supply chain, and to get companies to see the value of providing good quality ingredients to schools. But then the question arises, what is in it for the companies to do so.

As you can see, reprogramming the food system in our country and making sure it is at the right price point is not an easy task.

This is only one part of the bigger challenge. It is also not the sole responsibility of canteen operators. But we cannot keep at this complacency regarding the poor nutrition rates of our children.

Reprogramming anything takes time and a mindset change about our relationship with food as Malaysians will take even longer but it needs to be done and ignorance cannot be an excuse any more.

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