IMAGINE having to go to school hungry and being forced to learn and focus on lessons when your stomach is rumbling for food.
It’s even harder in the mornings when you have to skip breakfast.
However, for hundreds of thousands of pupils from families of hardcore poor around the country, this is the reality that they have to face each day.
Unfortunately for them, studies have shown that poor nutrition is ultimately linked to poor performance in school.
Various studies by nutrition and education experts have shown that those schoolchildren who ate breakfast before schools performed better and had lower absenteeism and tiredness.
Recently, a new study by researchers in Finland found that a healthy diet could help improve children’s reading skills in the first three years of school itself.
Carried out by researchers from the University of Eastern Finland and the University of Jyvaskyla, the study followed 161 schoolchildren, aged six to eight years old, from the first grade to their third grade.
Analysing their diet via food diaries, the children were assessed on their academic skills using standardised tests.
Results of the study suggested that parents, schools and governments could help the reading skills of children just by giving them better, more nutritious and healthier diet alone.
This provides a link between the importance of a healthy diet and academic performance.
Because schoolchildren who have breakfast can better focus on their lessons, they also learn more easily, particularly in the early development years.
It is reported that children aged between seven and 12 need at least 1,900 kilocalories to fuel their bodies and get through the day, based on a balance of 55% to 70% for carbohydrates, 10% to 15% for protein and 20% to 30% for fat.
The Supplemental Food Plan – or Rancangan Makanan Tambahan – run by the Education Ministry is an additional food aid plan designed to help underprivileged primary school pupils, who are in their growing years – both physically and mentally.
Aimed primarily at providing balanced, nutritious meals for pupils to better concentrate in classes and overcoming issues related to growth and lack of energy and concentration, the programme also encourages good food and environmental hygiene, and – directly and indirectly – helps to maintain health and nutrition practices.
On March 21, Education Minister Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid was reported as telling the Dewan Rakyat that the Government had set aside RM250mil in allocation for the plan, involving over 450,000 pupils in government schools this year.
This is a slight reduction from the 515,000 pupils under the scheme in 2017.
Out of this year’s statistics, some 41,000 pupils are from Chinese primary schools and 26,620 others from Tamil primary schools.
As of this year, over 2.6 million primary school pupils have benefited from this scheme since 2014.
The plan, which has been up and running since 1976, was first initiated by the Prime Minister’s Department as part of the Food and Nutrition Practice Plan. It was a community development programme based on efforts in health, agriculture and education.
Since 1980, the management of the programme had been taken over by the Education Ministry and expanded to all areas throughout the country.
From the 1990s, pupils benefiting from the programme are chosen based on their family’s socio-economic status.
Those selected for the aid have to be Malaysians, from rural areas or households earning between RM580 and RM930 per month, children of orang asli families (except for those living in hostels) and disabled students.
Beginning in 2015, the programme runs up to 190 schooling days, with RM2.50 set aside for each pupil daily in Peninsular Malaysia and RM3 for those in Sabah, Sarawak and the Federal Territory of Labuan.
It starts on the first day of school for pupils from Year Two to Six, and on the first school day in February for those in Year One and dropouts.
The rate is calculated based on the cost of raw materials in the market and does not take into account service, fuel and drinks.
To ensure that the scheme is properly managed and run, a committee has been set up at the ministry level to plan, implement, monitor and enhance the programme.
At the school level, there is also a similar committee chaired by the headmaster as well as a teacher appointed to oversee the running of the programme.
The committee selects a food supplier who is responsible for managing the supply of food, preparations and its serving as well as for the cleanliness of its equipment and serving area.
The school will choose five or 10 menus from a list of 20 menus prepared by the Education Ministry, which will then be rotated every week or fortnight according to the taste of the pupils and the capabilities of the supplier and financial allocation.
The food preparation process is carried out by 95% of school canteens in Peninsular Malaysia, with the meals being served to the pupils a few minutes before recess.
A guideline on the programme’s management and standard operating procedure – which came into effect last year – has even been published and distributed to all schools involved.
The Supplemental Food Plan is only one among the Education Ministry’s 19 programmes, such as the 1Malaysia Milk Programme, Textbook Loan Scheme and the Tuition Assistance Scheme, which are designed to help Malaysian pupils and students with their educational needs.
It is essential for pupils to receive a good start in their early school life, particularly when they are already disadvantaged by the lack of nutrition from their low-income background and especially if they hope to eventually break free from the poverty cycle.
After all, hungry bellies hear nobody.