Poverty leads to poor dietary habit

United Nations Malaysia research shows children at PPR flats consume a lot of ‘instant gratification’ food which makes them full but have no nutritional value. — Filepic

THE urban poor are often faced with food insecurity.

It is common knowledge that the urban poor’s diet primarily consists of huge portions of carbohydrate as the tendency is to load up on rice in a single meal to last them an entire day.

They are known to eat what is termed as “nasi bukit, ” which is heaps of rice with little or no nutritional dishes. And that often is their only meal for the day.

Muhammad Kamarulazizi, founder of non-profit organisation Kindness Malaysia, said this would lead to health problems such as diabetes and obesity in the long run.

The matter of food insecurity among the urban poor was among the various diet-related issues discussed at a dialogue session titled “Happier and Healthier Families — Making Eating Well Accessible for the B40 Community, ” hosted by Nestlé (M) Bhd.

Setiawangsa MP Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad revealed at the dialogue session that 2.78 million Malaysian households fell into the B40 category, which defined total household income as below RM4,000.

He emphasised that the poor were not lazy and many of them in urban areas held two jobs just to make ends meet.

“They work very hard and it is not true that they are lazy, ” he said.

Nik Nazmi said the poor in the country were often perceived as those from rural areas but it was the urban poor who experienced food insecurity as the latter were affected by the high cost of living in a city.

Muhammad, who conducts outreach programmes for the poor, concurred, “They (the urban poor) are always worried about going hungry and not certain of their next meal.”

Universiti Putra Malaysia’s School of Graduate Studies deputy dean Prof Dr Zalilah Mohd Shariff said a Unicef Malaysia study found that some 97% of those living in People’s Housing Project (PPR) cited cost as their main factor for not making healthy food choices.

Muhammad said priority among the B40 was putting food on the table and ensuring there was enough for their family.

“They will then consider if the food is delicious. Nutrition is the last thing they think of, because they link it to cost, ” he said.

Nik Nazmi said it was reported that 15% of children at PPR flats were underweight, while 22% were stunted and 20% were malnourished.

“It is common for primary schoolchildren to take care of and prepare food for their younger siblings when their parents work long hours.

“Based on research by United Nations Malaysia, the children in PPR flats consume a lot of ‘instant gratification’ food which is food that makes them full but is without nutritional value.

“There is also lack of healthy food options to be purchased within walking distance from these PPR.

“Meanwhile, raw food requires time to cook but the parents do not have the time to cook a wholesome meal for their children because the adults are juggling two jobs each, ” he said.

Nestlé Malaysia group corporate affairs executive director Nirmalah Thurai said the food choices made by the poor were based on their need to feel full as well as convenience and affordability besides a lack understanding on the need to eat healthily.

“When we meet children during programmes at schools, they know that they need to eat vegetables.

“But when we serve them fried rice with vegetables, we notice that the children will remove all the vegetables before proceeding to eat, ” she shared of her observations at some of the school outreach programmes carried out by Nestle.

She said 70% of the schoolchildren did not have breakfast.

“One boy said no one would be at home when he got back and so, he grabbed anything that was left on the table to eat, ” she said.

Nirmalah said the diet of the poor was lacking in nutrition such as calcium, iron and whole grain.

“The food and beverage industry too has an important role to play in this matter.

“Efforts in micro and macronutrient fortification of products are key in fighting silent hunger and stunting issues, ” she opined.

She added that Nestle would embark on ways for families to prepare meals for less than RM10 next year.

At the dialogue, it was also mentioned that lack of vitamins and minerals during crucial periods such as pregnancy, infancy and early childhood could lead to nutrient deficiencies, specifically malnutrition.

Malnutrition, if not addressed early on, could have lasting effects on a child’s life — impacting their development as well as potentially causing obesity, diabetes and other non-communicable diseases.

Failure to address the problem could subsequently have a multiplier effect, in which generations of families remain undernourished.

“We are conscious of the challenges faced by the urban poor, which has resulted in nutrient deficiencies among this group, and that resolving this complex issue requires collaboration from all parties.

“It is our hope that by driving the conversation together with

relevant stakeholders at today’s dialogue session, we will be able to bring about a meaningful and impactful change on a larger scale, to improve nutritional intake and ultimately help nurture a healthier Malaysia, ” said Nirmalah.

Nik Nazmi said that when a segment of society did not prosper, the country would lose out.

He cited the population dynamics in his Setiawangsa constituency where there were four low-cost flats located less than 10km from the Kuala Lumpur Twin Towers, with many of the residents falling into the B40 community.

“We are creating an unhappy group of people, which is dangerous in the long run. They can see how others with money live as compared to those without, ” he noted.

He highlighted that the government was working towards formulating a National Children Wellness Roadmap to create a comprehensive programme for education, poverty, housing and nutrition.

Starting next year, primary school pupils will receive free nutritious breakfast that will inculcate good eating habits and provide children the energy they need to stay focused in school, said the MP.

“For many in the B40 group, their children go to school without proper meals. This impacts their academic achievement. That leads to the vicious cycle of them not doing well in school, ” he said.

Nik Nazmi said the government was working with many corporations such as the food producers and retailers to assist with food aid programmes.

“Instead of allowing food to go to waste, the food is channelled to the homeless, those living in PPR flats and other deserving people, ” he said.

The Good Samaritan law — which will protect donors in case anything happens in the future due to their donations — is expected to be tabled soon.

Nik Nazmi said the government had also been aiding the poor over the past few years through the “Bantuan Sara Hidup” programme, which was distributed three times a year.

“Now the government is looking at a targeted subsidy programme, where instead of blanket subsidies for petrol and some goods, we will focus on giving subsidy to the poorest, ” he added.

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