Experts will be roped in to advise students on the importance of eating right and staying fit.
THE Health and Education Ministries will work together to combat obesity and malnutrition in schools.
Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai said such efforts would come with nutritionists and dietitians advising students on healthy eating habits. They will also offer tips on keeping fit.
“The move is similar to earlier oral hygiene endeavours where dentists and nurses visited schools to instruct students on the proper way to brush their teeth and floss,” he said when launching the Having Fun with Nutrition Roadshow in Primary Schools at Kompleks Sekolah Wawasan USJ 15 last Thursday.
Liow playing an interactive game with Sekolah Wawasan USJ 15 pupils after the launch while Health Ministry deputy director-general (public health) Dr Lokman Hakim Sulaiman (right) looks on.
Liow said that the situation was still “under control” as a significant number of overweight students were not yet obese.
He added that both the Education and Health Ministries would be working aggressively to keep things from getting worse.
On Sunday, Liow announced that the body mass index (BMI) of students would be listed on their report cards with immediate effect while unhealthy food and drinks would be banned from school canteens.
Education director-general Datuk Abd Ghafar Mahmud said it would not be a problem for schools to list students’ BMI on their report cards.
“Schools already carry out the National Physical Agility Standard (Segak) which tests students’ physical fitness,” he told StarEducation.
Segak presently covers students from Years Four to Six and from Forms One to Five, and will be extended to include those in Years One to Three as well.
Abd Ghafar said an announcement on the extension to include pupils in lower primary schools would be sent to schools soon.
Under Segak which was introduced in 2008, students’ fitness levels are measured through a cardiovascular test, two types of push-ups, sit-ups and stretching exercises.
“Data from these tests as well their BMI is recorded and is then listed in the Students Information System so it will not be a problem for the information to be transferred to their report cards,” he said.
Abd Ghafar explained that Segak is conducted during physical education classes or after school, and carried out twice a year in March and August.
Liow said his ministry was working together with the Education Ministry to come out with an updated set of guidelines for canteen operators in an effort to promote healthy eating habits.
“We will announce the guidelines in detail with the Education Ministry soon after we finalise the matter,” he said.
He said there are many new kinds of processed food and vending machines are becoming more popular at schools.
“The guidelines must be stringent to ensure that only healthy food and drinks are sold in schools,” he said.
Liow said that a draft guideline was completed and the Education Ministry’s endorsement was the final step before it could be implemented.
When pressed for a more definite timeline of implementation, the minister said that the guideline would be signed “as soon as possible” and an announcement could come as early as next month.
A study done by the Health Ministry in 2006 showed 10.3% of children (aged between seven to 13) were underweight; 6.3% were overweight or had obesity problems while 14.6% had stunted growth.
Another study by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) showed an increase in obesity amongst primary school children (six to 12) within a six-year time frame.
Abd Ghafar says it will not be a problem for schools to list students’ BMI on their report cards.
In 2001, 9.7% of students were obese and that figure rose to 13.7% in 2007. The study concluded that the increasing prevalence of obesity was attributed to unhealthy eating habits and a lack of physical activity.
The study also showed that 76% of school-going children did not live a healthy lifestyle as they spent a significant amount of time in front of televisions and computer monitors.
The UKM study also showed that around 70% of students had breakfast everyday while 10% skipped it on a regular basis.
The study also reflected the students’ top picks in the food department with nasi lemak, mee goreng and nasi ayam as the most popular local dishes while fast food favourites included burgers, fried chicken and pizza.
National Union of the Teaching Profession secretary-general Lok Yim Pheng welcomed the Health Ministry’s initiative in promoting healthy eating among children.
“Obesity is not caused solely by the food being sold at school canteens. How the child eats at home may also have also contributed to the health problem,” she said.
Parent Chua Hooi Dean said the inclusion of BMI in report cards would only help if it would come with useful pointers for parents to interpret the data and decide on the next course of actions should there be any problems.
“I believe some teachers are already giving advice to students on the importance of healthy living,” she said.
Form Five student Farah Syahirah Noor Ariffin, who only brings her own food from home described the Health Ministry’s decision as a good move towards a healthier nation in the long run.
“I think students have to be careful and aware of what they are putting into their mouth,” said the 17-year-old from Tengkera, Malacca.
Saripah Ramle, 17, from Jalan Pokok Mangga (in Malacca) said she did not think the new ruling affected her at all as she only occasionally bought bread and water from her school canteen.
“I think this will help remind students to be more health conscious too,” she said.
Eight year old Shoba said she would often bring food from home and at times buy snacks from the canteen.
“I also buy ice cream a few times a week outside the school gates,” she added.
Abdul Taib, 11, said he ate at the canteen every day adding that he usually had fried rice or noodles followed by chips or ice cream after school.
Muhd Luqman, 11, said he usually had two sausages for breakfast and another two during recess which his mother would prepare for him.
“For dinner, I have roti canai and eggs but I rarely have any desserts,” shared the Year Five pupil who loves playing computer games and Playstation after school.
Liow said the canteen guidelines would detail the “frequency” of the dishes that were sold at each canteen.
“For example, we will determine how many times nasi lemak and mee goreng can be sold each week at any one canteen,” he said.
The minister added that the new guidelines would also affect traders and hawkers outside the school compound.
“We have discussed with the Housing and Local Government Ministry and food sold outside the school will fall under the guidelines.
“Hawkers can sell their food but it must be healthy,” he said.
Liow said the guidelines contained around 70 general entries of food and drink and each entry was divided further into more sub categories.
For example, a classification of nasi berlauk (mixed rice) would be divided to factor in the side dishes served with it.