Our children need healthier food


The eating habits and food choices of Filipino children lead to high prevalence of malnutrition with undernutrition, including overweight and obesity.

“Children are eating fewer fruits and vegetables, and more sugary, salty and fatty products,” according to a UNICEF report entitled “Children’s ‘lived experience’ of the food environment in the Philippines” released March 8.

“Three quarters (74 percent) of 13–15-year-olds eat less than three portions of vegetables per day while more than one third (38 percent) drink at least one carbonated drink per day,” the report explained.

“Poor diets are contributing to a triple burden of malnutrition with undernutrition, in the form of poor growth and micronutrient deficiencies, co-existing with increasing rates of overweight,” the report said. “This triple burden of malnutrition is being driven by systems that are failing to provide children with adequate diets, space to play and exercise, access to safe water and hygienic environments, and financial security.”

Although various reports on the malnutrition situation here are quite abundant, I still find the UNICEF report an eyeopener. It highlights the “lived experiences” of four Filipino children with ages 9 to 17 from different areas of the country, and a study of “their environments that affect what, when, where and why they eat the foods they do.”

The UNICEF said understanding the “lived experience” of the children – named Bea, Gab, Ana, and Jon – made it possible to “identify the policies that the government of the Philippines and other stakeholders need to strengthen to ensure that children are able to access healthier diets and living conditions to support their growth and development.”

What are these policies? Foremost are strengthening and enforcing the Philippine Milk Code to restrict marketing of breast milk substitutes, coming up with legislation restricting the marketing of unhealthy food, mandatory front-of pack nutrition labelling on packaged foods warning of excessive content of unhealthy ingredients, and nutrition labelling on menus of fast-food chains to help customers make healthier food choices.

The Milk Code or EO 51 aims to prevent milk substitutes from replacing breast milk so babies grow healthy. The UNICEF said that at present, it is easy to get swayed by labels saying breast milk substitutes will help children grow stronger.

On unhealthy food like instant noodles, here’s what UNICEF said: “These processed packaged foods are cheap, readily available and easy to prepare so are particularly attractive to poor families. However, many packaged foods contain high quantities of unhealthy fats, sugar and salt. Front-of-pack nutrition labels that warn of the excessive content of unhealthy ingredients can help children and their families to make healthier choices.”

The UNICEF report also cited the need to promote availability of locally produced food at affordable prices. “Ensuring that fresh food markets remain open and able to sell locally produced food at affordable prices means that poor families continue to be able to access an essential source of healthy food,” it said. That reminds me of the Food Always In The Home (FAITH) program that I pursued when I was governor of Laguna in 1995.

The FAITH program, which has since been adapted by the National Nutrition Council, enabled people to produce clean nutritious food in their backyards, thereby reducing home food costs by as much as 50 percent while improving family nutrition. Extra income can also be derived from the program from the neighborhood sale of excess produce.

The UNICEF also called for subsidies on healthy food: “It is important to increase the quantity and choice of healthier snacks on the market which appeal and are affordable for children. A starting point is to provide subsidies for healthy snack alternatives to promote the manufacture, formulation and marketing of healthy snacks that are attractive for children. For example, ensuring that expensive fruit is subsidized so that it can be sold as a snack at lower prices.”

Supporting carinderias and street vendors is also a recommended policy. “Working through associations of street vendors or independent food shops can be a starting point for encouraging vendors to prepare and sell healthier ready-made foods which supports both vendors’ livelihoods and access to healthy food for poor families,” the report said.

The need for these policies to address malnutrition is urgent and vital. Stressing its importance, UNICEF Philippines Representative Oyunsaikhan Dendevnorov said: “Malnutrition is a serious violation of a child's right to adequate nutrition and can have serious long-term consequences for a child's health, development, and well-being. Children need a varied and nutritious diet for their growth and development, and caregivers need support to provide their children with a healthy diet.”

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