STUDENTS swarmed the small booth, jockeying to see the fruit concoctions. Behind the table, five students worked furiously to blend ingredients into drinks for their eager customers.
It was the opening day for Smoothie Shack and business was already booming at SMK Kota Masai 2 in Pasir Gudang.
Smoothie Shack is a student initiative created out of CLICK! Camp 4.0, which is a United States (US) Embassy programme promoting social entrepreneurship skills among low-performing secondary schools in Malaysia. Students learn to identify a social problem in their community and then create a business solution to address it and benefit the community.
The students at SMK Kota Masai 2 are tackling two issues namely the lack of healthy food options at the school’s canteen and their classmates’ preference for unhealthy food.
At school events, Smoothie Shack sells nutritious and tasty smoothies – a mixture of fruit, vegetables, ice, yogurt, honey, oats and milk and uses most of the profits to create a multifaceted nutrition education programme at their school.
The students have promoted healthy lifestyle awareness in several ways.
They invited Valerie Jarvis, an American teacher at SMK Indahpura 1 in Kulai, who had studied public health at Bates College in the US to speak to 120 students about healthy food as it relates to higher academic and athletic performance.
This month, Smoothie Shack is welcoming Jolene Hernandez, an American teacher and accomplished dancer in Rompin, Pahang, to conduct a hip-hop aerobics workshop at SMK Kota Masai 2, in order to expose students to the health benefits of physical activity.
The students have also produced nutrition pamphlets, sponsored a healthy lifestyle selfie competition and initiated a school food-composting programme for organic food waste.
The group maintains an active Smoothie Shack Facebook page, posting daily fitness tips, nutrition facts, and endorsing socially responsible businesses.
Targeting healthy eating habits is important given the health problems in Malaysia resulting from poor diets. It has been reported that Malaysia is the most overweight country in Southeast Asia and that diabetes-related diseases are some of the costliest health problems for the country.
As Jarvis stated, “This public health challenge varies based on community. Some families cannot afford to purchase healthy, nutritious foods; sometimes it has to do with a lack of knowledge about what is healthy; and sometimes a family’s culture prevents them from consuming daily nutrition recommendations.”
Even with the strong support of teachers and principal, Nordin Mukri, Smoothie Shack faces obstacles to changing deeply rooted cultural eating habits and economic realities.
Nutritious food in Kota Masai is more expensive, many traditional Malaysian dishes do not use vegetables, and students crave sugary drinks and MSG-seasoned curries.
Leong Pui En, one of the students who operates the Smoothie Shack, lamented that customers sometimes wanted more sugar to their vegetable smoothies. “We needed to add natural honey, a healthier alternative to processed sugar, to some smoothies to enhance the sweetness.”
Beyond fostering improved nutrition, the students who help out at Smoothie Shack have become business-savvy and independent.
They meet several hours a week to resolve group disputes, devise strategies to reach out to the food industry, schedule meetings with school administrators, write event proposals and discuss ways to improve their business.
Their personal growth, even their commitment to use English as the medium of their social enterprise, is astounding.
As their teacher advisor Mazlan Yaacob said, “Before CLICK! Smoothie Shack members would never have had the courage to converse in English but now they even insist on giving public speeches in English ... they are gaining real life skills such as dealing with customers and learning the art of conveying information that is not in the school syllabus. They are trying to lead their community through example.”
Being CLICK! finalists, the students during a trip to Kuala Lumpur took the opportunity to meet up with food scientist and businessman Mohammad Othman at his factory, Bakeri Ria Rood Industries, and also to network with other food and business experts.
The students even approached strangers in KLCC to secure video endorsements for their social enterprise.
While advocating for healthier lifestyles in Malaysia is not easy, Smoothie Shack is starting a dialogue on healthier lifestyles while providing students nutritious food options and tools for better living.
If its members’ motivation is any indication of Smoothie Shack’s future success, large profits and many satisfied taste buds await.
* John Millock is an American Fulbright English Teaching Assistant who has been teaching in Malaysia for almost two years. He is a teacher at SMK Kota Masai 2 in Pasir Gudang, Johor.