IT is estimated that over three billion people around the globe are affected by micronutrient deficiencies, with its more aggressive impact being felt in the developing countries. Pakistan is amongst the countries with an extremely poor nutritional status for children under and above five years of age.
According to the National Nutrition Survey 2011, stunting (the failure to reach linear growth potential), wasting (acute weight loss) and micronutrient malnutrition (hidden hunger) is endemic in the country.
Nearly half of the children under five years of age are stunted and one in three is underweight. Hidden hunger, ie micronutrient deficiencies, has severe health consequences and is particularly harmful if experienced in early childhood. It irreversibly impairs the child’s physical and cognitive development and increases the risk of mortality, with reduced productivity at later stages.
The causes of these morbidities are numerous, and include dietary deficiencies, poor maternal and child health, poor nutrition, a high burden of morbidity, low micronutrient content in the soil, and an extremely poor knowledge of nutrition amongst the general masses.
Stunting, wasting, and malnutrition are endemic in this country.
Currently, many strategies are being adopted to combat these nutritional challenges. However, food-related strategies often fail to address the problem of micronutrient deficiency as budgets often do not allow micronutrient-rich foods to be included in meals. Efforts to overcome the menace include both awareness and food-intervention programmes. In particular, nutritional-awareness programmes through the media are considered to be among the best solutions.
Schools, especially elementary schools, are where children are exposed to many influences outside the family. Parents as well as teachers need to “help the children build healthy foundations by encouraging a habit of consuming healthy foods and maintaining good nutrition throughout these formative and impressionable years”.
It is worth mentioning that there are multiple factors that discourage healthy lifestyles at this age, including the easy availability of unhygienic restaurant and street food items, the busy lifestyles of parents, and marketing pressures in a globalised world. These distractions may push children towards the reduced intake of the nutritious meals that they need at their age.
This could result in compromised nutrition and could have unfortunate implications for the national economic growth, the healthcare infrastructure and the overall mental, physical and social well-being of the citizenry. In this context, sufficient nutritional awareness, within school boundaries, could create an environment of health and well-being for both the parents and their children.
In the past, the Punjab government, through the efforts of the Punjab Food Authority, had launched a number of nutritional-awareness as well as curricula-development programmes in schools to combat these problems.
In Pakistan, elementary school education appears to be shifting towards the private sector, with an increasing burden of tuition fees being put on the parents. Private schools are adopting different strategies in the education of children, and are attempting to come up with better results through the hiring of specialist teachers including those who can teach music, oversee physical fitness, and motivate students.
However, health and growth are not prioritised. It is a disturbing that the nutritional part of education and training has remained neglected. Unfortunately, many parents are also not too concerned.
The encouraging aspect of this story is that a large number of graduates, who have specialised in nutrition, are now emerging from higher educational institutes. These graduates are well educated and trained to address nutritional issues. However, many are still looking for job placement in the healthcare system.
I believe they would be best employed in elementary schools. Having such graduates in the school system could help improve the nutritional status of our citizenry in the long run and lead to a stronger, healthier nation. Therefore, public- and private-sector elementary schools must hire professional nutrition teachers. They would formulate effective ways of encouraging children to develop their awareness and opt for healthy food.
The idea ought to be conveyed to the education ministry as well as the food regulatory authorities that schools must hire at least one nutrition teacher; it is unlikely that it would entail a huge cost. Normally, these schools pay their teachers Rs30,000 to Rs40,000 per month on average. Therefore, employing nutritional specialists would not add too much to their budgets, especially when we envision the long-lasting impact of this policy on the overall well-being of the Pakistani nation. Healthy children and a healthy nation will automatically lead to an economically strong Pakistan. This must be the goal.
The writer is director of the Institute of Home and Food Sciences, Government College University, Faisalabad.
Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2019