BREAKFAST is the most important meal of the day.
Come January 2020, the well-intentioned plan is to ensure all 2.7 million pupils throughout the country in government and government-aided primary schools for both morning and afternoon sessions have something to eat before they begin classes for the day.
Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik announced on Monday that this is the Free Breakfast Programme, or better known by its Malay acronym, PSP or Program Sarapan Percuma.
The programme will follow the same model as the Supplementary Food Programme (RMT).
So far, the only factor that differentiates the PSP from the RMT is that the new programme will benefit all primary school pupils across Malaysia.
The RMT however, is limited to those from households grouped below the national poverty line, with an allocation of RM289mil this year.
In 2018,489,117 schoolchildren in 7,316 schools throughout the country received the RMT.
Under the RMT programme, poor students nationwide are given complete meals with fresh fruits and a soya bean drink every morning.
More than 20 types of meals are provided under the RMT programme, which include chicken rice, nasi lemak, fried noodles, bee hoon, roti canai, lontong, soto, nasi paprik, cereals and soup noodles.
Maszlee said it is most important to ensure that pupils get a nutritious and balanced breakfast for their growth and cognitive development.
“Pupils will sit with their teachers, learn proper eating habits and discipline, such as washing their hands before eating, clearing up after their meal and so on, ” he added.
Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said the government has the budget for the PSP to be implemented in all primary schools next year.
He said the government could use the consolidated fund from the various ministries and agencies to implement the programme to benefit the pupils.
Asked whether the government would use part of the soda tax revenue to fund the programme, Dr Mahathir said all proposals would be looked into.
“All taxes collected will be distributed to the ministries and agencies according to need. If there is a need for an additional allocation, we will consider.
“If we can afford it, we will provide it, ” he told Malaysian journalists after concluding his three-day official visit to Vietnam on Wednesday.
Asked about the perfect menu for the pupils’ breakfast, Dr Mahathir said there were many healthy menus which were suitable for the programme.
The PSP sounds like a dream come true for some parents who struggle to ensure their children get a chance to eat a decent meal.
This is not limited to being poor and not having enough food as working parents may not have enough time to prepare breakfast for their children in the morning.
Many parents have to leave for work early in the morning or have to rush to get their children ready for school.
This does not leave much time for them to prepare breakfast, let alone for the child to eat it.
Mother Kay Tan who has four children, said getting all of them up and ready on time is a real challenge.
“Not every parent is adept in the kitchen so I’m thankful that the government is providing breakfast for those in primary schools, ” she said.
Melaka Action Group for Parents in Education (Magpie) chairman Mak Chee Kin is cautious about the implementation of the initiative.
Although he said it is “good”, he wants to know whether pupils will be able to make it on time to actually eat the food.
On instilling discipline through communal eating with the teachers and washing their own utensils, he said this should be learnt at home.
“Teachers just reinforce these qualities, ” he said.
He also foresees problems of food wastage if the child doesn’t want the food or has already eaten at home.
Father of two, George Ling, said the government also needs to look into the possibility for those who want to opt out of having their children eat at school.
“Some may prefer their children to eat at home, ” he added.
The National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) welcomes the minister’s announcement.
Its secretary-general Harry Tan called it a “unifying hope” to treat Malaysians equally, especially students.
“This is a long overdue step.
“It gives a strong message to pupils that all of us, no matter what our race, religion and social status is, we are all equal.
“All sensitivities, however, must be taken into account when preparing and providing the food, ” he said.
Educationist Datuk N. Siva Subramaniam commended the ministry, saying a large number of pupils go to school with an empty stomach.
“They go to school in a hurry by just consuming a drink because their parents are busy or because they have to rush for their school bus; the first meal of the day is vital.
“Back in the day, food was supplied to poor pupils.
“We should congratulate the ministry on their effort but the management of it must be done with the help of Parent-Teacher Associations, ” he said.
Siva Subramaniam said there will also be added value to pupils’ attention during lessons.
“They won’t be thinking about their empty stomach.
“Taking care of our pupils will enhance their day for better education, ” he added.
Although secondary school students are not part of the programme, Siva Subramaniam urged the ministry to look into the possibility of extending the programme to them as well.
“Many secondary school students also go to school without breakfast, ” he pointed out.
Details first, please
School heads remain cautious regarding the implementation of the new programme.
Noridah Abdul Aziz, the headmistress of SK Bandar Tasik Kesuma, Selangor, said she now faces a logistical dilemma.
Her school’s canteen can only accommodate around 300 pupils, which is around 12% of the school’s population of 2,500 pupils.
Although they are divided into two sessions, there are still more pupils than available space in the canteen.
There are three recess times in the school to cater to the huge student population, she added.
She also said that the numbers keep growing and this is not even including their 126 teachers who are required to join the pupils during meal times.
“We are waiting for the ministry to issue formal instructions on how the programme will be implemented, especially for schools with a large student population.
“How will we arrange the pupils to eat breakfast because our space is small?” she questioned.
She said the pupils are not expected to eat in the classrooms.
“This is a good programme and we hope that it can be implemented properly.
“We already practice having the pupils clean up after themselves, ” said Noridah, referring to the ministry’s plans to have the school children clean their utensils.
The pupils have to clean the tables as well, she added.
“This has instilled not only discipline but also civic consciousness in them, ” she said.
SK Pauh Jaya, Penang, headmaster Ramlee Abu Bakar said the collaboration between the Health and Education Ministries is important so that the meals provided meets a child’s nutritional needs.
He added that his school provides packed, nutritious meals to its pupils valued around RM3 every day to those who want it.
Parents pay for these meals directly to the canteen operator monthly, he added.
More than 300 pupils receive these meals daily, he said, adding that the primary school has an enrolment of 1,300 pupils.
He also said the food menu, which includes a drink, is determined after consultation with the Penang state health department and district health office.
Ramlee said the menu rotates among 10 food items which include rice, fruits and vegetables.
As for drinks, he said the school serves fresh fruit juices and that sugary drinks such as cordial syrups are not allowed.
“We have strict control on the food served, ” he pointed out.
This is to ensure that pupils receive adequate nutrition so that they can “function well” throughout the school day.
What’s on the menu
The menu and budget for the PSP for primary school children are still being discussed, said Maszlee.
This is to ensure that pupils will get a nutritious breakfast of the best quality.
“The programme aims to provide nutritious food based on caloric value and balanced nutrition to ensure pupils practise a healthy lifestyle, which will stimulate their growth process.
“The menu will be determined after discussions with the Health Ministry, nutritionists and the Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Ministry, ” he said.
In a posting on Instagram Story on Tuesday, he explained that the plan was to serve the meals for about half an hour.
Meal times will be between 7am and 8.30am for the morning session, and noon and 4pm for the afternoon session, he added.
“A special committee will be formed to discuss in detail the provisions that will be used for the PSP, ” he said.
Maszlee has said the programme is inspired by what Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad saw in Japan.
The country’s pupils received nutritional food and learned civic consciousness via the programme there.
Many have joined the effort to improve meals at schools globally, which are generally deemed to be lacking in nutrition.
Among them is celebrity chef Jamie Oliver who has been actively trying to change eating habits in schools in Britain since 2005 with his television show Jamie’s School Dinners.
The programme revealed the poor standards of school food in the UK.
The Jamie Oliver Foundation, in its research years later, found that many schools served food high in fat and sugar during break and lunch times despite the campaign.
Some of the food included pizza, doughnuts, muffins and cookies.
It was reported that Oliver admitted his school dinner campaign was not a success as he felt that eating well was still viewed as an “indulgence of the middle classes” in the Britain.
Former US first lady Michelle Obama had pushed for healthier school meals as part of her agenda to tackle obesity. During the Obama administration, the US Congress passed laws requiring school lunches to be more nutritious.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed by the Congress in 2010, required schools to only provide grain products that contained at least 50% whole grains and reduce sodium, full-fat milk and meat from meals.
Snacks with low nutritional value were to be swapped for fruit cups and granola bars.
The United States’ Department of Agriculture also published new regulations to enforce the law.
However, that initiative failed as Donald Trump’s administration reversed those guidelines last year.
In the United Arab Emirates, the authorities have banned junk food such as chocolate, crisps, soft drinks and chewing gum from school canteens in Dubai since 2011.