School canteens under spotlight for selling unhealthy drinks to children

  • Aung Myo Htet
  • Freelance Health Reporter
  • Soft drinks in Myanmar copy

As the clock approaches 8.30am, the gates of primary schools in Yangon become crowded. Every morning, accompanied by parents and tutors, young students carrying their lunch boxes enter school compounds. They are ready to start their morning of classes, have a lunch break at noon to refill their energy and attend the afternoon sessions.As the clock approaches 8.30am, the gates of primary schools in Yangon become crowded. Every morning, accompanied by parents and tutors, young students carrying their lunch boxes enter school compounds. They are ready to start their morning of classes, have a lunch break at noon to refill their energy and attend the afternoon sessions.At a first glance, one can think of it as a delightful scene of a typical morning in the Myanmar’s most populated city. However, there are increasing concerns about how schools are promoting public health through adequate and nutritious eating patterns for their students, although children may not be completely aware of their nutritional choices. Daw Thuzar, a mother of two primary students from Shwe Poukkan township, Yangon, shares this concern: she wants her kids to avoid buying any drink or food and therefore never gives them pocket money on a school day. “We cannot know what school canteens will be offering them, as parents we are not allowed to enter the compound. My children said that they sell Korean-style barbecue snacks, and although we have no right to tell them whether they should sell it or not, I don’t like them to eat it”, she added. Myanmar has one of the highest rates of malnourishing (stunting) among children aged under five in ASEAN, according to the Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund (LIFT). One third of Myanmar’s children is suffering from stunting and half of the total children’s deaths in Myanmar is connected with malnutrition, as the multi-donor fund shared in February 2017. This situation is alarming some parents. The findings are supported by a study conducted by Daw Moh Moh Hlaing, Deputy Director and Head of the Nutrition Research Division at the Ministry of Health. The research with over 800 primary students from Yangon, Mandalay, Mawlamyine and Taunggyi found that 13% of urban kids are suffering from obesity, over 20% of kids who live near urban areas are physically weak while more than 12% of rural kids are suffering from stunting issue. The study also found that more than 300 children –the 36%– do not even drink milk during the week. 63% of them only eat fish once or twice a week while 15% do not eat fish at all. Only half of the kids can afford to eat meat once a week or twice a week according to the research. Alarming, as milk, fish and meat contain the basic nutrients for children’s development and make them strong and intelligent. Eating habits are major contributors to nutrition problems, however, improving food consumption and food distribution for the nation’s children does not only involve home meals, but school canteens, where children have their lunch every day. According to the study previously mentioned which involved 17 primary schools across the country, school canteens or food stalls near education centers are selling ready-to-eat snacks or soft drinks. Only five schools from Mandalay and Taunggyi from Mawlamyine and Yangon were offering fruits. Medical experts and nutritionists keep insisting that ready-to-eat snacks, fried food and soft drinks can be connected to cancer, hypertension, heart diseases or diabetes, the most common diseases in Myanmar. Unfortunately, kids enjoy them, especially soft drinks. Even though all of them must have been regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is operating under the Ministry of Health and Sports, some have no description about it. A teacher from a primary school in Kabalu township, Sagaing Region, shared her related experience. During a class, she noticed the smell of her classroom was very strong and when trying to identify the source, her students were eating sweet and smelly snacks. She confirmed that her students really loved that snack and it was available at only 50 kyats per pack, but she doesn’t allow anymore eating this kind of snacks during class time. Daw Thuzar, the mother of two primary students from Shwe Poukkan township, Yangon, explained that the decision should rely on education authorities: “Vendors will continue to sell this kind of food and soft drinks as all they want and need is money. If teachers or headmasters from schools ban the selling within school compounds, vendors will not dare to sell again.”, she shared.The nation’s future depends on its children, students, and as important as them, is their health status, but it is not a matter that school’s representatives have been ignoring the issue. As shared by a 40-years-old lady who sells food at a primary school canteen in Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township, Yangon, a supervising committee formed by teachers controls the canteen and selling unhealthy food, snacks and soft drinks that contain chemicals is strictly banned and regulated. In addition, instructions from the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) have been hanged at the canteen. They include rules such as selling fresh and healthy food, ban selling food containing chemicals, advice how to avoid flies over the food and how to throw away the rubbish properly. Despite the efforts, there is still available food with Chinese labels, which makes hard to identify what kids are eating. Even Parliament representatives also recognized the instructions did not really solve the problem.Last February, Dr. A Zin Lat, Parliament representative from Shwe Bo Township, encouraged members of the Parliament to take action against unhealthy food or drinks that contain chemicals in school canteens and proposed to strictly control them, in order to avoid malnutrition in children. “These days I don’t see Myanmar children having enough nutrients that are required for their development, I only see them eating unhealthy snacks or drinks with any nutritional value and not contributing to their growth”, she stated.U Nay Myo Tun, a parliament representative from Htan Tabin township, shared his concern about the school canteens. “If we cannot control snacks that come from China, our children will suffer several diseases because of the toxicity they contain, and will have a shorter life expectancy.”, he added. He referred to the news about basic food groups containing artificial dyes, mushroom poisoning, arsenics, fertilizer and formalin found by the FDA in some markets. Although this can be a public health threat to the country, what is even more alarming is these items can be found in school canteens.  Dr. A Zin Lat explained that inspecting school canteens is not the solution they have to take as policy makers and the government of the country. According to her, it is needed to find the main importing source that supply the snacks and drinks to the retail and wholesale shops. It has been seven months since the debate took place in the Myanmar Parliament, and now the officials in Nay Pyi Taw are planning to start the fight against school canteens. The proposed plan consists on substituting China imported snacks with Myanmar snacks made with beans, produced and distributed by the Small-Scale Industries Department under the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation and the plan is under discussion with the Ministry of Health. The price of the bean snacks is one of the main factors to take into consideration, as unhealthy snacks are consumed because they are cheap. The proposed traditional food must be priced between 100 and 200 kyats, according to the Director General of the Small-Scale Industries Department.Another option can be using similar patterns as other developed countries such as the United States and Japan, where schools prepare the meal for primary and middle school students instead of letting them buy any food from the canteens.During the Parliament discussion, U Nay Myo Htet, a Parliament representative from Kyauktada township, shared that schools being accountable for cooking students food can be a good way to ensure high quality food is distributed. Although he recognized the system may not be easy to adopt owing to the current political and economic situation in Myanmar, he plans to propose it again once Parliament meetings resume in mid October. Teachers are welcoming the proposal of selling bean-made snacks instead, which can make children “full in a nutritious way, at an affordable price.”, according to Dr. Thidar Soe, a teacher from No.1 Basic Education High School in new Dagon (North Dagon). She considers that a change in policy should not only involve the government, but all the related parties should be considered and included in the discussion: parents, teachers and students. Daw Thuzar, the mother of two primary students proposed to solve the issue with her simple thought at the beginning: if school headmasters ban unhealthy snacks, vendors would stop selling them. In addition, parents like her play an important role, as she prepares her own snacks for her children, so they don’t buy any additional snacks or sugary soft drinks. “I rarely give them any pocket money.”


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