PETALING JAYA: The government should revive its aborted free breakfast programme for primary schoolchildren to help alleviate malnutrition and stem the rising number of stunted growth cases, an expert said.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s professor of nutrition, Poh Bee Koon said the initiative was important as many students do not have breakfast before classes begin. She said it would help reduce cases of stunted growth.
In 2019, the Pakatan Harapan administration began a pilot programme to provide free breakfast to primary schoolchildren, but discontinued it due to budget constraints.
“Presently, most schoolchildren are eating at about 10am during break time. (A breakfast) meal will improve attention span and help children perform better cognitively.
“Our children must eat well and be physically fit.
“Children who have breakfast do better in exams, learn better and are healthier, in general,” the UKM health and advanced medicine research cluster chairperson told FMT.
She said that while stunting may start at a younger age, good nutrition would reduce its longer-term effects and allow catch-up growth.
Proper nutrition during primary school-going ages could help make up for lost time and promote healthy development in their adolescence, she said.
The government recently disclosed that at least 30% of young children suffer from stunted growth, particularly those from poorer families.
This is largely caused by the inability of parents in the lower income bracket to provide nutritious and healthy meals, deputy health minister Lukanisman Awang Sauni told the Dewan Rakyat last week.
A national health and morbidity survey conducted last year revealed that stunting among children increased from 17.1% in 2015 to 21.2% in 2022.
The idea of free breakfast for primary school children was first mooted by former education minister Maszlee Malik in 2019. At the time, it was estimated that the cost of feeding 2.7 million schoolchildren nationwide would be between RM2 billion and RM3 billion annually.
Several countries run free breakfast programmes for schoolchildren, including Japan, India, Brazil and Finland.
Poh, who two years ago led a regional study of 14,000 children aged between six months to 12 years, said Malaysia faces the “triple burden” of malnutrition, including undernutrition, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and obesity.
The study, called Southeast Asian Nutrition Surveys II, also revealed that stunting and anaemia persist, especially among younger children. Older children, on the other hand, show a higher tendency towards being overweight or obese.
A significant number of children do not meet the recommended daily intake of calcium and vitamin D.
The study found that, in Malaysia, 30% of children aged between seven and 12 were overweight, and one out of three children skipped their daily breakfast.
The study also found a decline in dairy consumption, a primary source of calcium and protein.
“Children who eat animal source foods, including milk, as part of a balanced diet, will get better nutrition.
“It is likely that stunting cases are happening among the poor, as food prices are high and parents are unable to feed their children well,” said Poh.