Nearly impossible to feed their brains with lessons because


Manila Times, Sunday, June 11, 2006


Nearly impossible to feed their brains with lessons because

6 million pupils go to school hungry

Basic education: The poverty and malnutrition factors

By Likha Cuevas

WHAT if the classroom shortage, the poor quality of textbooks and the lack of intellectually and pedagogically qualified teachers are solved?  How wonderful it would be if all Filipino children can be in education’s enchanted kingdom.

Do you think the problems of Philippine basic education would then disappear?

No! Not for almost one-third of all school-age Filipino children.  Of the 20 million schoolchildren who began the 2006-07 school year last week, almost 30 percent belong to families living below the poverty line.  The children of these poor families, about six million of them, go to school hungry or in a state of malnutrition every day.

Some actually go to school without having had any kind of breakfast, others after eating a handful of rice and a piece of tuyo (dried fish). Well-to-do pupils who are used to three square meals a day might faint with hunger by three o’ clock p.m. if subjected to this kind of deprivation.

These poor children don’t take packed lunch and snacks with them. More than a third of them are likely to be suffering from different ranges of malnutrition.

You cannot think straight—you cannot absorb what you are being taught—when you’re hungry. The body has to address its more basic need first before it can address the cognitive need of the mind.

Signs of malnutrition

Clinical research shows that being underheight and underweight are signs of malnutrition. Studies in 2001 show that 31.8 percent of Filipino school-age children are underweight, 32 percent are stunted and 6.6 percent suffer from wasting disorders.

The Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology said Filipino schoolchildren suffer from protein-energy malnutrition, iron-deficiency anemia and deficiencies in vitamin A and iodine. (See side bar: “What malnutrition does to Filipino school kids.”)

The institute’s researches also show that clinically severe malnutrition and moderate malnutrition exponentially increase mortality risk in young children and that moderate malnutrition may pose delayed cognitive and psychomotor development.

Scientists associate malnutrition with poverty incidence in the country. The National Statistical Coordination Board says that poor families—those with per-capita income below the poverty threshold—made up 33 percent of total families in 2000 and 30 percent in 2003. 

Because too many families could not afford to buy enough food, the government launched a number of feeding programs through the Department of Education as a stopgap measure to address the malnutrition incidence in schoolchildren. This shows the government’s awareness of the relevance of nutrition to education.

Feeding programs

According to the Department of Education, the supplementary feeding program provides additional food equivalent to about a quarter of an individual’s daily food requirement. “It is intended to fill the deficiency in the quality and quantity of one’s home diet,” the department said.

The department is implementing the Breakfast-Feeding Program, School Milk Project, and Applied Nutrition Program. In addition, the Office of the President launched the Food for School Program in 2004 to deal with both the health status and academic performance of elementary schoolchildren in selected schools nationwide.

Rogelio A. Limson, head of the department’s school-feeding program, said breakfast feeding assuages short-term hunger by giving first graders from fifth-class municipalities noodles and biscuits every morning for 120 school days.

Limson said 414 schools and 22,222 pupils benefited from this program last school year, when it operated on a budget of P4 million.

Breakfast feeding is accompanied by the Food-for-School Program under the office of President Arroyo in coordination with the Department of Education, the Department of Social Welfare and Development, the National Nutrition Council, the Department of the Interior and Local Government, the National Economic and Development Authority and the Department of Agriculture’s National Food Authority.

The Food-for-School Program is carried out in 55 provinces in Regions 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, Caraga and the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. Among the “very, very vulnerable” provinces that the National Nutrition Council has identified were
Masbate, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, the priority areas of the program.

Limson said that the preschool (under the DSWD) and first graders from “families that had gone through hunger” are given rice for their school attendance to encourage them to stay in school and complete their primary education.

“Another aim of this program is to address hunger by making the families of these schoolchildren share the rice brought home by the kids,” Limson said. From November 2005 to March 2006 the department recorded a 2-percent increase in the weight of children beneficiaries.

The school milk project is carried out in 615 schools for 120 days and has benefited about 41,660 pupils. Having a budget of P26.4 million, the project aims to improve the nutritional status of children, encourage the habit of drinking milk and help local dairy farmers, who are tapped by the Department of Agriculture to provide milk.

However, since these programs involved doles to underprivileged families or children, the government realized that it might encourage mendicancy among the residents of the serviced provinces. Because of this, Limson said, the applied nutrition program was launched.

This program involves the community and local government units. School gardens are established for food production, and fish and poultry raising are encouraged. Canteen management is taught in schools and 35 percent of the proceeds go to feeding programs to be carried out only for 60 days or up to how long the community can support it.

Sen. Edgardo Angara has found what he calls a “grand scam” in one of the programs. Angara has expertise as an educator, having been president of the University of the
Philippines, an agriculture secretary and having initiated the first “Rice-for-Schools” program during the Estrada presidency. He said he has received verified complaints from all over the islands that only 25 kilos of rice are given to qualified pupils from “hungry families” instead of 125 kilos throughout the school year.

Last July 18, President Arroyo announced the release of P500 million for the program.
Angara says the budget for the program in 2005 was P1.6 billion for 125 kilos for each deserving “hungry” pupils.

Since only 25 kilos were given to each pupil instead of 125, only one-fifth of the budget was spent. Up to P1.28 billion (or four-fifths of the P1.6-billion budget) could have been scammed.
Angara wants a full investigation.

Tackle other problems first before school feeding

However, some nongovernment organizations working with children say that school feeding may not be the best or only solution to health and nutrition problems.

According to Ms. Lulay de Vera-Mateo of Unicef
Philippines, the government must deal with hygiene and sanitation problems first because many children in the country suffer from worm infestation. “The school feeding programs may just be feeding the worms infesting these children,” de Vera-Mateo said.

The latest study conducted by Unicef, the Department of Health and the UP

College of
Public Health has disclosed that about 66 percent of 12- to 71-month-old (one-year-old to almost 6-year-old) children suffer from worm infestation. In 2003 a Department of Education survey found that 51.6 percent to 77.7 percent of schoolchildren suffer from worm infestation. (See sidebar)

Unicef found that most children with worms suffer from abdominal pains, lack of appetite, perianal (around the anus) itching, anemia and restlessness. Most of the children in the Unicef survey were pale, and those who had good appetite remained thin, lacked energy and could not sleep well.

De Vera-Mateo said that if the feeding programs do not deal with the hygiene and sanitation problems of the households in communities, the programs may not be able to solve the health issues these children face.

Teachers and school administrators must be provided with materials and training modules so that children can learn them and transmit knowledge in their own households and communities. The present educational system, however, is unholistically concentrated only on the cognitive development of children, de Vera-Mateo said.

Moreover, Sophia Garduce, executive director of the Association for the Rights of Children in
Southeast Asia, says that school feeding is only a “palliative measure” and is not very helpful, because “these programs reach only a few children.”

“The problems of children cannot be separated from those of their parents,” Garduce said. The government should first do something concrete to solve poverty and unemployment. “If the parents can feed their children, then there is no need for these government feeding programs,” she said.

In the meantime, many children will go to school still hungry and unhealthy this year. Definitely, experts say, this negatively affects their scholastic performance and the quality of their lives.

Do not expect high-test scores this year.



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