Learning on an empty stomach

Fritzie Rodriguez
More than half a million Filipino schoolchildren are thin for their height. How does this impact on the country's future?

HUNGER KNOWS NO AGE. Undernutrition continues to be a public health problem among students across all ages. Illustration by Mara Elize Mercado/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – More than half a million or 534,054 Filipino schoolchildren are severely wasted, according to 2012-2013 figures of the Department of Education (DepEd). Wasted means they are thin for their height.

The World Food Programme (WFP) defines “wasting” as a “recent and severe process that leads to substantial weight loss, associated with starvation.” It is a symptom of acute undernutrition that impairs the immune system – increasing the child’s susceptibility to infectious diseases and death.

A decline in children’s nutritional status signals an eventual decline in their academic performance.

This is dismaying since these students will someday grow up to become the backbone of Philippine society. They will be our nation’s future decision-makers, leaders, and producers.

If their minds and bodies are feeble now, just imagine what the Philippines will be in the years to come. Asia’s “rising tiger” may become a limping cub.

Hungry preschoolers, teens

The latest findings by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology (FNRI-DOST) from 2011 show that among children under 5 years old, protein-energy malnutrition was a problem: 20.2% were underweight (thin for their age), 33.6% were stunted (short for their age), and 7.3% were wasted (thin for their height). 

This age group is crucial since this is when children are most vulnerable to infections and diseases, while their nutritional needs are also increasing. Physical and mental damages at this point will be irreversible. 

This period is a “window of opportunity for nutrition intervention,” according to FNRI-DOST.

Meanwhile, among 5-10-year-olds, 32% were underweight, 33.6% were stunted, and 8.5% were wasted. Among 10-19-year-olds, 35.7% were stunted and 12.7% were wasted.

These figures barely changed since the 2008 survey. FNRI-DOST warned that undernutrition continues to be a public health problem among Filipino children.

The Philippines is the 9th country in the world with the most number of stunted children, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).

Stunting results from long-term nutritional deprivation. It is manifested not only in shortness-for-age, but also in delayed mental development, poor school performance, and reduced intellectual capacity.

Meanwhile, the most recent Global School-based Health Survey by the World Health Organization (WHO) from 2011 reported that 11.8% of surveyed Filipino students aged 13-15 years old were underweight.

Hunger disregards the age of its victims; both kindergartners and teenagers can fall prey.

Hungry body, hungry mind

A student’s life can be exhilarating, but also exhausting – physically and mentally. What does undernutrition do to these young minds and bodies?

Hunger, a preventable yet persisting problem, hinders children from achieving their full potential.

Unicef says that “even short-term hunger can adversely affect a child’s ability to learn.”

Undernutrition makes a child more vulnerable to diseases, disabilities, and death. It also disrupts a child’s mental and physical development – which may lead to poor productivity in adulthood.

Concentration, critical thinking, creativity, and even their social abilities may be negatively affected. Instead of focusing on class activities, they may also be too distracted by pangs of hunger.

Micronutrient deficiencies impair physical and cognitive development, lower intellectual capacity, and lessen productivity. Vitamin A deficiency may cause blindness, while iodine or iron deficiencies reduce a child’s IQ, cognitive and motor skills.

Unicef also warns that worm infestation causes anemia and poor growth development.

Some students who do not have enough money for food attend classes with an empty stomach or choose junk food as an alternative. Their parents are unable to feed them nutritious meals due to lack of resources or information regarding healthy and affordable meal preparations.

Poor school performance

The 2012 results of the National Achievement Test (NAT) revealed that the Mean Percentage Score (MPS) of Grade 3 pupils in the country was 56.98%. This is lower than the 2011 results (59.58%) and the 2007 initial results (57.42%). English, Math, and Science scores dropped slightly. 

Among 6th graders, MPS was 66.79%. This is slightly lower than the 2011 NAT Results (68.14%), but higher than the 2006 initial results (59.94%). There was also an increase in the scores in all subjects from 2006 to 2012.

Among high school seniors, MPS was 48.90% which is classified as lower average; however, this is still slightly higher than the 2005 initial results (46.80%).

Poor nutrition, however, is not the sole reason behind these test scores. These numbers paint an even bigger picture of Philippine education, assessing not only the performance of students, but also of parents, educators, and the government.

Children’s nutrition as an investment

Investment on children’s nutrition begins at home.

Parents are expected to provide the basic needs of their children, including clean, sufficient, and nutritious food.

But this investment does not end at home; the government must also educate and support its people, especially the poor who are most vulnerable to hunger.

Unicef says that “well-nourished children perform better in school, grow into healthier adults and are able to give their own children a better start in life.”

In the long run, investing in children’s nutrition will benefit the country’s economy and future generation. “When populations are well nourished, higher individual productivity, lower health care costs and greater economic output will ensue,” Unicef says.

Go, Grow, Glow

GO GROW GLOW. Children must eat these three basic food groups every day to ensure optimal growth and development. Illustration by Mara Elize Mercado/Rappler

The National Nutrition Council (NNC) emphasizes the role of good nutrition in child development.

NNC advises children to eat a variety of nutritious meals everyday – including go (for energy), grow (for tissue and muscle development), and glow foods (for body regulation and protection).

Other reminders include:

  • Do not skip meals, especially breakfast
  • Avoid foods high in salt, fat, or sugar
  • Parents can prepare nutritious baon for their kids (i.e., boiled banana, cassava, sweet potato, corn, peanuts, fresh fruits, sandwiches, milk, fresh fruit juices)
  • Always check food labels for nutritional content
  • Encourage children to engage in physical and creative activities
  • Eat and sleep on time

Vicious cycle

WFP sees the “poverty trap” as one of the leading causes of hunger. Families living in extreme poverty cannot afford nutritious meals; hence compromising their health – which then limits their opportunities for school, skills training, and work.

When these problems persist, families are “condemned to a life of hunger and poverty.” These malnourished children may grow up to become unhealthy parents, repeating the same cycle.

The Philippines is the 5th country in the world with the most school drop-outs, next to India, Ethiopia, Pakistan, and Nigeria, according to a 2013 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco). 

Some students with problems in their studies, finances, health, or families tend to quit school.

Meanwhile, some parents opt to not send their children to school, fearing the financial burdens of education – tuition and other school fees, allowance, food, daily transportation, books, uniforms, school supplies, and projects. 

Instead of studying, some children choose or are forced to work to augment their family income, while also risking their health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, some of them also fall into a life of vice or crime.

Not only are these children giving up education, they are also giving up their childhood and their future. – Rappler.com