Education Minister Maszlee Malik handing over meals to schoolchildren in Kuala Lumpur on Aug 26. Don’t give the funds to a food company but give them to schools. This will make teachers and parents more aware of what to feed their children to boost their mental prowess and physical growth. FILE PIC

MANY mornings I meet Hashim at the nasi lemak stall not far from the school gate.

His two daughters are primary school pupils. Hashim normally buys two packets of nasi lemak of RM1 each and two packets of curry puffs of RM2 each.

They are for his daughters. Both Hashim and his wife are working and hardly have time to prepare breakfast for their children.

The couple always have breakfast on the go. “Makan dalam kereta je Bang. Takut lambat sampai ofis (We eat in the car on the way to office. We don’t want to be late),” Hashim once told me.

This is quite typical of office workers playing catch-up with time.

Hashim is not alone in this. Another couple in my neighbourhood send their children to a kindergarten nearby.

They, too, buy packed sandwiches for their son and daughter.

I bump into them quite often on my morning walk.

So when Education Minister Maszlee Malik announced that the government would provide breakfast for schoolchildren, this was welcome news to Hashim and others like him.

If and when fully implemented, Hashim would save time, reduce his early morning stress and save some money in the process.

For Hashim, it’s quite a bit of savings — RM30 for a school week.

In an urban environment, RM30 can cover quite a bit of domestic expenses.

This initiative of buying food for schoolchildren is a good idea, but one that needs more thinking.

Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, after one of his many travels to Japan, had asked the education minister to look into this programme.

The minister has yet to finalise details but the budget allocation is said to be very big.

A pilot project will be undertaken next year to see how this can be fully executed.

Perhaps there is still time to modify the proposed programme a bit to make it more holistic and fulfil a bigger scope.

I thought that an easier way to implement this would be to get the buy-in from school teachers and parent teacher associations. Get them involved.

Localise the implementation but monitor it closely. Proper and clear guidelines need to be introduced so that the children have proper nutrition — a balanced diet.

According to research undertaken by the World Economic Forum, children eat too little of what they need but too much of what they don’t!

Many of them eat processed food which is high in calories, fats, sodium and sugar; but low in vitamins and minerals.

Result? Overweight and obesity which lead to type two diabetes and increased risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Surely we don’t want our schoolchildren to be exposed to such a dangerous situation at an early age, or at any age for that matter!

A balanced diet is important to a child’s growth, both physically and mentally.

Scientists in Britain can tell you that a proper breakfast helps schoolchildren to concentrate on their studies besides aiding them in memory recall.

This inadequate breakfast for schoolchildren is actually a global problem, said the United Nations Children’s Fund.

Its research showed that five years ago, children below 15 years old in Mexico, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, the United States and the United Kingdom had higher food insecurity problems than many other countries.

At the other end, children in the same age group in Japan, Sweden, South Korea, Croatia and Germany had the least food insecurity problems.

In France, one in eight school-children has no daily breakfast.

So a breakfast programme for schoolchildren is also being adopted in that country, but with a slightly different approach.

It targets children from disadvantaged backgrounds and selected poor urban neighbourhoods.

So you see, the proposed breakfast programme is a good one, but requires fine-tuning.

To my mind, it must also embrace the local neighbourhood, with the emphasis on educating parents about what food is good and bad for their children.

So, rather than giving the funds to one big food company, give them to individual schools.

This will make teachers and parents become more aware of what they should feed their children to boost their mental prowess and enhance their physical growth.

By getting schools and PTAs involved, rapport between parents and teachers would improve.

Local food entrepreneurs can get some business, with a balanced diet formula in food preparation.

The project can create a new ecosystem for the food business. Over time, the benefits will be quite obvious.

But there must be strict adherance to quality control of the food to be supplied.

The Health Ministry must be involved, too, as should local councils. A new and much better supply chain can evolve from such a scheme.

Add one more item for these children: throw in some educational books and reading materials such as newspapers and novels.

A child’s formative years need to be fed not just with a balanced diet but with food for the intellect as well.

While we feed our children with proper food, we are also faced with another problem — children (and many adults too) don’t read enough. So let’s feed them with good and cheap reading materials — newspapers for one.

Maszlee may want to sit with corporate leaders, civil societies and non-governmental organisations to get them to embrace this programme.

The writer is a former NST group editor. His first column appeared on Aug 27, 1995, as ‘Kurang Manis’