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Can Malaysia’s Poor Afford A Healthy Diet?

Malaysia’s B40 community spends a little over 24% of their monthly income on food, that’s approximately RM600 per household.[1] Break that down further, that’s basically RM20 per day, per household for food! 

When you have a minimal budget, decisions on food choices change and the pressing question would be ‘what will fill my stomach?’ 

The first items dropped are usually healthier foods – high-quality proteins (meats), whole grains, vegetables and fruit. What will increase will be low cost energy-rich starches (rice), added sugars, vegetable fats and processed food – the cheaper and faster way to ease hunger pangs. 

Let’s take a look at how the money is spent. 

If we look at a breakdown of expenditure it looks something like the pie chart below. At first glance it looks like a well-balanced food intake expenditure, but if we dug a little deeper into their decision making, we will find out that their options are narrow and choices are limited.

Source: Department of Statistics Malaysia (2019)

These households spend 36% of their money on basic proteins such as meat and fish. However, we can’t say that this means they are getting enough to have a balanced diet. Meat and fish are products that are generally sold in low quantities for higher prices. They usually don’t last more than 2 or 3 meals, so they need to be bought frequently. In certain areas, meat and fish are extremely high priced due to transportation costs and middleman profits. The shelf-life factor is the same for bread, fruits, and vegetables that make up 31% of the food expenditure. 

When times are hard, members of the B40 population will take to buying even more processed food and instant foods such as instant noodles and they are laden with salt and MSG. To many, this sacrifice is necessary to make ends meet and give them enough energy to get through the day.  

Foods like rice, cooking oils, processed foods, sugar and eggs are usually sold in bulk and can last up to several weeks even with regular consumption. Together they only take up 27% of the food budget. A lower income family will be more likely to spend RM13 on a tray of 30 eggs that can last up to 2 weeks as opposed to spending RM15-18 for a whole chicken that will be sufficient for only 2-3 meals. 

However, as helpful as they may be, these shortcuts in spending have their downfalls. Majority of processed food products like canned food and instant noodles have a high in sodium, salt content and low nutrient, protein and fibres. Even drinks made at home with high quantities of sugar are dangerous to one’s health. Based on the said research, a household in the B40 community buys 6-8 bags of sugar per month.

Taking all these factors into consideration, it’s no wonder the nation’s poor are struggling to obtain a healthy diet. Now times are just getting hard with the global pandemic affecting all strata of society, especially the poor.

How do we ensure that the nation’s poor can eat healthily? 

There is no easy answer, but here’s what we think: 

  • Education and awareness on nutrition, food choices and health – start them young. 
  • Increase the resources and incomes of low income households – more job opportunities, higher salaries. 
  • Ensure healthy foods are available and affordable to those on a low income.
  • Teach and train low income families on how to be partially self-sustaining when it comes to food security – simple farming and animal husbandry skills. 

Find out Three Surprising Health Facts about the B40 Community

Contact us to improve on this list!

Explore our sources:

  1. Department of Statistics Malaysia. (2020). Household Expenditure Survey Report 2019. Link.

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