The road to healthy lunches
Adjusting the state cash subsidy to serve better meals for kids is just the tip of the iceberg in solving a systemic problem
Well-seasoned phalo soup with eggs, crispy fried chicken served with rice, and a khanom jeen dish with side vegetables are all delicious Thai-style treats that can be served to school students for lunch. However, in reality, what some Thai children receive is rotten eggs in phalo soup, small slices of fried chicken on top of a tiny amount of rice that barely fills three spoons, and khanom jeen or fermented rice noodles with sprinkles of fish sauce and nothing more.
Over the years, Thai parents have voiced concerns both online and offline over the quality and quantity of food served to their children during school lunch. Countless cases time and time again have made news headlines that highlight not only the poor quality of meals served to school children but also incidents that have been associated with corruption within Thailand's school lunch programme.
In an attempt to fix the ongoing problem of lunches at schools, especially in terms of quality and quantity, the Ministry of Education recently sought cabinet approval to adjust the lunch allowance at schools. The proposal involves an increase of the school lunch budget from 20 baht per head per day to a maximum new rate of 36 baht, a plan expected to be implemented in 2022.
Students at Ban Bangkapi secondary school in Bangkok queue up for lunch. Photo: Apichart Jinakul
Lecturer at Mahidol University's Institute of Nutrition, Asst Prof Kitti Sranacharoenpong, said that although the 20 baht school lunch budget may sound small, it should be adequate if appropriately allocated and managed. However, such a low allowance is a problem for schools which have 40 or fewer students.
"For large schools that have, say 500 students, 20 baht per student means the school will receive 10,000 baht per meal per day which is enough to provide all the kids with a nutritionally sufficient meal. However, for schools with say 20 students, 20 baht per day per student translates to just 400 baht, which is barely adequate," said Kitti, who for many years has worked with the Office of the Basic Education Commission (Obec) on the school lunch programme and with neighbouring countries to set up a healthy lunch campaign for their students.
According to Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan, the new school-lunch subsidy will not be a fixed rate. Instead, the new budget will be progressive and based on the actual number of students present. For schools with at least 81 students, the lunch budget will be 24 baht per student per day. Meanwhile, schools with 61-81 students will receive 25 baht per student per day. However, the maximum subsidy will be 36 baht per student per day, which will be allocated to small schools with only one to 20 students.
"Smaller schools with fewer students should receive a higher allowance than larger schools, so they can provide all five essential nutrients," said Nataphol.
Although such a move can be seen as a result of great efforts made by the Ministry of Education to make school lunches healthier, Kitti admitted that the allowance amount is only one piece of the puzzle. Thailand's school lunch saga is a conundrum that involves various issues.
"Regardless of inflation or deflation, the 20 baht school lunch allowance scheme has not been revised for five years," he added. "Moreover, the 20 baht per student budget only covers ingredients and does not factor in costs associated to human labour, fuel and other associated activities. However, the new rate will cover all of the expenses including wages, material, food and petrol costs as well as economic conditions."
Nonetheless, Kitti still believes that the "misuse of human resources" is an important part of the school lunch equation that should not be overlooked.
"We have failed to hire the right person to do this job. In some schools, teachers are assigned to do everything from teaching and grading to assessing the height and weight of students. In many cases, these teachers do not have a thorough understanding of the importance of nutrition."
Additionally, many teachers focus only on academic excellence and underestimate how healthy meals can play a part in children's development.
"They notice which students are good at maths or science but fail to see who is underweight or obese. Teachers need to understand that for children to become good at focusing and studying, they need to be healthy first," Kitti commented.
According to the lecturer, Thailand has seen a steady increase in the number of obese and overweight children over the past few years. Today, at least 6% of Thai kids aged between one to 14 are overweight or obese which is equivalent to around a 3-5% surge on a yearly basis.
Kitti also added that 4% of Thai children or around 400,000 kids in total are either overweight and below the average height for their age while another 4% are underweight.
"Of course, obese children are likely to become obese adults as well," he noted. "The prevalence of non-communicable diseases among adults also stems from the fact that children are sick and unhealthy."
Kitti regards Japan as a model country when it comes to providing healthy lunches to students. In the island nation, each student is allocated a budget of around 100 baht per day -- a stark difference from Thailand's school lunch subsidy.
"A school lunch there consists of rice, fish, vegetables, milk and dessert. The portions are large enough to allow students to remain full until they return home for the day. As a result, snacks are not allowed to be sold on school premises because they are not necessary."
That is a stark contrast to scenes here in Thailand where children hardly eat lunch provided by their school. Rather, they opt for junk diets or snacks which are available sometimes within the schools themselves.
"The overconsumption of junk food has caused a double burden [of malnutrition] among Thai kids," Kitti said.
To alleviate the budget headache, money alone is not the answer, the lecturer added. Together with an adequate school lunch allowance, nutrition-related knowledge, people training and collaboration from all stakeholders are all necessary factors that must be met.
"Qualified teachers with nutrition-related knowledge should be assigned to take care of the management of school lunches," he recommended.
"Schools in different neighbourhoods can implement a concept used by public health volunteers where each tambon has its own health volunteer to take care of its people. Schools can do likewise. They can have one specific person who is responsible for monitoring school lunches served at various schools in a specific area. This person should also be tasked with overseeing students' growth and development and not have other assignments to attend to that may interrupt their one sole responsibility."
The most notorious case of bad school lunches was brought to people's attention in 2018 in Surat Thani province after students at Ban Tha Mai school were served khanom jeen with sprinkles of fish sauce.
Corruption within the school system also needs to be addressed. Teachers who want to have a share of the food cooked for students should put their own money into the school lunch budget so that money set aside for children is not exploited. Cooks also need to undergo proper training and physical screening to ensure safety and disease prevention.
Kitti considers children an agent of change within a family. Therefore, they should be taught what to eat and what not to because parents will not buy items their children won't eat.
"Parents usually don't have time to listen to nutritional-related knowledge. However, small children can be taught -- the smaller the better -- and when they know what they should or should not eat, they will tell their parents accordingly. This way, instilling healthy eating habits can be done right at home."
"Money alone is not the answer to solve this issue," Kitti concluded.
"Rather, stakeholders should understand that lunch is important for a child's growth and development. Subsequently, they should ensure children stay at school with a full stomach."