School breakfast for all was never practical, says Wee

The government says the free breakfast programme will continue but will cater only to poor students. (Bernama pic)

PETALING JAYA: The government’s free breakfast programme in primary schools was never a practical idea, said former deputy education minister and MCA president Wee Ka Siong, after Putrajaya scaled back the initiative to cater only to needy students.

Wee also said the programme was a wastage as it was difficult to gauge the breakfast patterns of all children.

“Some parents prepare a meal for their children, some just a bowl of cereal and fruit.

“If you provide a standard breakfast, not everyone will eat it and it will lead to wastage,” the Ayer Hitam MP said.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who is also acting education minister, said the programme would continue in primary schools but only for needy students.

This was after questions over the future of the programme following the resignation of Maszlee Malik as education minister.

Maszlee had announced in August last year that free breakfast would be served to children in primary schools from this month to ensure they had access to nutritious food and that they could stay healthy and focus on their daily lessons.

Wee Ka Siong.

Wee said the programme should not cover students from rich families who may not want to eat the free food.

“There is also the issue of the time allocated for the breakfast. Where is that time going to come from? School schedules are already packed,” he said.

He said it was better to tweak the existing Supplementary Food Programme (RMT) so that only those taking part in it should come slightly earlier.

“When the government can afford to expand the programme, it can consider it but for now, this policy flip-flop reflects poorly on them,” he said.

However, the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy disagrees with the move to limit the free breakfast to poor students, saying it goes against the programme’s health objectives.

“The programme was not only intended to reduce the number of children going to school hungry but also to tackle the worsening issue of malnutrition as marked by the increasing rates of obesity, wasting, diabetes and other non-communicable diseases,” its CEO Azrul Mohd Khalib told FMT.

Azrul said the health ministry’s national health survey showed that malnutrition cuts across the different layers of the population.

The free breakfast programme would help instill healthy eating habits from a young age, regardless of whether they were rich or poor, he said.

Azrul said the effectiveness of this was proven, citing the example of Japan, where free healthy school lunches were considered part of a child’s education.

“The children in Japan are among the healthiest in the world.

“To revise the programme to only feed children from poor families would not only be discriminatory but would lose the opportunity to teach all our children to be healthy living individuals.”

Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) secretary Tunku Munawirah Putra said they understood the government’s rationale for limiting the programme to poor students.

“There’s the cost factor for the government, plus those who do not need the free breakfast will not come to school early to have it and this could lead to wastage,” she said.

Munawirah said the success of the programme depended on the ability of vendors to provide quality nutritious food.

“The right vendors need to be chosen and monitored to ensure the standard of the food is maintained,” she added.