Recently, a story shared by a Terengganu primary school teacher, Cikgu Lynn Ismail, left some netizens distraught. The story came as a post on Cikgu Share, a Facebook page dedicated to Malaysian teachers.
Under the National Recovery Program (NRP), school students are divided into two groups, each group alternating between weeks to attend school in person – thereby reducing the number of students in school and lowering the risk of possible Covid-19 infection.
Cikgu Lynn noticed a particular student showing up every day for school despite being allocated a schedule. Assuming the student did not know about the rotation, Cikgu Lynn explained to her again and told her that she can study at home that week.
The student nodded in acknowledgement but still appeared in school the next day. Puzzled, Cikgu Lynn tried explaining to her again and on the third day, the student was still present.
Then, Cikgu Lynn noticed the student was a recipient of the Supplementary Food Programme (RMT). During the school’s break time, she gobbled down her food eagerly and was seen to be hungry.
It dawned on Cikgu Lynn that the student who came to school every day was there not only to learn but also to get her stomach filled.
Supplementary Food Programme
RMT (short for Rancangan Makanan Tambahan) is a programme initiated by the Ministry of Education (MOE) to provide free and nutritious meals for primary school students from underprivileged families in aid of their learning and development so that no students have to attend class with an empty stomach.
The beneficiaries are not limited to students from B40 families, but also students with disabilities (PwD), students in rural areas, and Orang Asli students. The programme is offered in all public and government-aided schools under MOE, including Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools (SJKC and SJKT).
In 2020, children made up 28.3% of Malaysia’s population – amounting to 9.24 million people. Terengganu, of which Cikgu Lynn and her student resides, is the state with second-highest percentage of children.
Malnutrition and Poverty
The National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) 2019 shed some light on Malaysian children’s nutritional status. It was reported that 14.1% of Malaysian children were underweight, 21.8% stunting, and 9.1% wasting. All three statuses experienced an increase when compared to NHMS 2015 (underweight 12.4%, stunting 17.7%, and wasting 8.1%).
When comparing the data by socio-economic background, children from lower-income backgrounds were doing much poorer. The prevalence of underweight and stunting increases as we go down the income gap. Children from rural areas are more likely to have a lower body mass index and were found to be shorter in height.
On the other end of the spectrum, nearly 13% of Malaysian children are obese, with lower-income states with a higher percentage of obese children. Of note, the prevalence of obesity in Malaysian children aged 5-19 years old is higher in comparison to countries like Ghana with a GDP six times lower than ours.
NHMS 2019 reported that urban children were more prone to being overweight (15.4%) and obese (15.3%) as compared to children from rural areas. The same point was made when zooming into PPRs (low-cost housing projects) in Kuala Lumpur where 23% of children were either overweight or obese.
Can’t Afford to Eat Healthy
These trends are partly explained by the increasing ubiquity of food-away-from-home. Snacks, fast foods, and takeaways are woven into the fabric of the rapid urban lifestyle. Where adults can make conscious decisions about diet choices, however unwilling, children are oftentimes left with no choice.
The blame is not completely on the parents though, as 97% of households cited high food prices as the main reason preventing them from preparing healthy and balanced meals. Low access to affordable and nutritious foods is the key factor that underlies both undernutrition and overweight.
It is already disheartening to know that 1 in 10 children residing in urban areas of Kuala Lumpur has less than 3 meals a day. With the impending increase in food prices, one can only imagine how many more children will be denied a good nutritious meal?
2.7 Million Children May Be Affected
This is where RMT comes in. It is crucial to provide a safety net to ensure filling and nutritious meals for growing children that are otherwise difficult for families in low-income groups to meet.
In mid-November, Malaysians were taken aback by the news that the free breakfast programme, introduced by former Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik in 2019, will not be continued.
This came as a written reply by KPM to Dr Maszlee upon the question of whether the programme should be reintroduced in schools nationwide under the 12th Malaysian Plan so that it can help students and teachers affected by the pandemic.
To note, the free breakfast programme is an enhancement of RMT, where all primary school students, not only underprivileged ones, get access to free breakfast. Data from 2019 indicated that the programme was bound to benefit 2.7 million children and 50,000 teachers across 7,772 schools.
While KPM assured that the existing RMT programme will be retained with improvements together with the school milk programme, one cannot help but wonder how many of these 2.7 million students will have to go to school with empty stomachs.
On the fourth day, Cikgu Lynn met the student again. She stopped questioning her attendance and gladly received her in school just so she can learn and be fed. It is with the hope that the improved RMT will seek to cover broader beneficiaries so that deserving ones from the 2.7 million can continue to be benefited.
Explore Our Sources:
- Ang, M.V. (2021). Teacher Finds Out One Of Her Students Comes To School Every Day Just For Free Meals. Says.com. Link.
- MOE. (2020). Pelaksanaan Penambahbaikan Program Rancangan Makanan Tambahan (RMT) Tahun 2020. Ministry of Health. Link.
- DOSM. (2020). Children Statistics, Malaysia, 2020. Department of Statistics Malaysia. Link.
- National Institute of Health. (2020). National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) 2019: Vol. I: NCDs – Non-Communicable Diseases: Risk Factors and other Health Problems. Ministry of Health. Link.
- UNICEF Malaysia. (2018). Children Without: A study of urban child poverty and deprivation in low-cost flats in Kuala Lumpur. UNICEF. Link.
- The Star. (2021). Consumers fret over increase in prices of wet goods. The Star. Link.
- Tan, T. & Carvalho, M. (2021). Free breakfast programme will not be continued, Education Ministry tells Parliament. The Star. Link.