Home  >  Opinion

My thoughts on free school breakfast

  • The ministry can encourage more students to participate in this programme through propaganda and incentives. A compulsory programme forced through without proper planning and management will only end in failure.

By Wong Tai-Chee

Many governments in this world are providing nutritious food to school children with the objective of mitigating poverty and hunger while creating healthier, more productive and high quality students.

In addition, through dining together, the school will also be able to promote discipline by making the students learn to queue up orderly as well as the merits of courtesy, table manners, while instilling in the students the concept of hygiene, healthy diet, the habit of not wasting food and awareness in environmental preservation, among others. By dining together, relationship between teachers and their students will be boosted and this will help improve the learning atmosphere in the classroom.

Education minister Maszlee Malik announced recently that beginning January next year, students at all primary schools in the country will be able to enjoy free breakfast. Before the measure is put into implementation, I have some divergent views on the proposal that the meals will be free for all primary school students and the time for breakfast is set at 30 minutes each day, namely between 7.00am and 8.30am for students at morning session and between 12pm and 4pm for afternoon session.

I really can understand the minister's carefree manner in passing his remarks. I feel that I have the obligation to offer my views to the minister on the issue of free breakfast with the hope this plan can be carried out more effectively.

Before offering my views, I think it is necessary for us to first look into how the same thing has been carried out in other countries so that we can draw up the most appropriate plan that suits our conditions better.

Let's start with Japan. Large scale programme to provide free food for students began after the Second World War. A law was passed in 1954 with the objective of providing assistance to impoverished families and through improved nutritional ingredients strengthening the school children's physical state. Fresh milk has thus become the daily necessity. Until this day, all primary school students and majority of lower secondary students are still entitled to subsidised lunch. Most primary school students are not allowed to bring in their own food from home, and they have to take the lunch boxes provided during the lunch recess. The students pay varying amounts depending on their family incomes while students from impoverished families are entitled to totally free meals.

Next we talk about France, where lunch is considered the most important meal of the day. Most of the students will have their lunch at the school canteen with half the cost of the meal paid by the parents and other half subsidised by their school. Naturally poor families can apply to the school for free meals. Food provided at the canteen emphasises on healthy and balanced diet with a standard four-course meal that includes an appetiser (salad or soup), a main course (meat or fish or egg, with noodle or potato or rice etc), dairy products (such as yoghurt) and desserts (fruits, etc.)

In Italy, the schools provide nutritious and balanced diet as in France, but is more expensive. As a result, many parents prepare food for their children to bring to school to eat.

We can see from here that the well-being of school children in a country is closely related to the economic capability of its government.

In Japan and France, a full-day education system is in practice. For Japanese primary schools, normally the school starts at about 8.30 in the morning and finishes at 3.30 in the afternoon, with two breaks in between. There may be extracurricular activities after school. Lunch recess normally starts at 12.30pm and lasts for 40 minutes, for five days a week.

As for France, the school also starts at 8.30am and ends at 4.30pm, with two breaks plus a 90-minute long lunch time. The school time is longer than in Japan because French primary schools normally run on a 4-1/2 day week.

Now back to Malaysia, Maszlee Malik did not explain why breakfast is provided instead of lunch, probably because breakfast is cheaper, or the minister has been told that many primary school children often skip breakfast. He has made up his mind to provide free breakfast for school children at RM2.50 to RM3.00 each, without conducting an in-depth study on the overall class system.

Let's look at the minster's free breakfast plan from the factual perspective and analyse its feasibility, as follows:

1. On free breakfast for all students: Our students come from very different family financial and ethnic backgrounds with very different dietary habits. The subsidised breakfast at school may not take everything into consideration to meet the dietary habits of students from different races. As a result, some of the students may opt to shun the free breakfast. Moreover, many students may have taken their breakfast at home, and more importantly, since breakfast is free for all, the school will have to prepare breakfast for each and every student, and food wastage is inevitable if some students choose not to eat.

2. Time arrangement: Roads in Malaysia's major cities and towns are generally clogged up early in the morning. Due to lack of public transportation and school buses, many parents have to send their children to school first before going to work, making our roads even more congested. It is good enough for the children to arrive at school on time, and we cannot expect parents to send their children to school earlier just for the free breakfast.

Many primary schools in this country still conduct the afternoon session on a half-day basis. The morning session starts at 7.30 until about 1.30 in the afternoon, with 20 to 30 minutes of recess between 9 and 10.30. The afternoon session starts at 1 or 1.30 and ends at about 6.30, with a 20 to 30 minutes of recess after 3pm.

Now that we still practise a two-session system, do we still call the meal provided for afternoon session students “breakfast”? Moreover, the nutritional significance of breakfast and afternoon tea may not be the same.

3. On the interactions between teachers and students: Given the rushed breakfast time, it is anticipated that many students may choose not to eat for one reason or another, thus defeating the purpose of promoting interactions. Under such circumstance, it is not practical for the minster to require students not taking the breakfast to also sit down and interact with other students.

Based on the problems mentioned above, I would like to make the following suggestions:

1. It is more appropriate to provide lunch for students instead. All the three meals of the day are equally important for our children and the most important thing is to ensure nutritious and balanced diet for them. The old belief that breakfast is the most important meal of the day may not be accurate. As a matter of fact, the nutrients required by us should be evenly spread out to all three meals, with lunch having a slight advantage in that it replenishes the energy depleted during the morning and provides additional energy for the afternoon. This is particularly important for the learning ability of growing children. However, care must be exercised to ensure that students do not overeat during lunch time.

2. Lunch for both morning and afternoon sessions: Looking from the current class timetable, morning session students can have their lunch after school, namely after 1.30pm. As for afternoon session, students can have their lunch before school, between 12 and 1pm. There should be about 30 minutes apart for the two meal sessions to facilitate cleaning on the part of canteen management. Meanwhile, the canteen operator can prepare food for both sessions together for improved efficiency and lower bidding cost for the school.

3. Fees: as lunch is normally more expensive than breakfast, to minimise food wastage and taking into account household income gap, the ministry can consider a three-tier fee system: a) completely free for impoverished families; b) 50% subsidy for ordinary families; and c) minor subsidy for more well-off families. I would suggest that the education ministry design a proper form for students to apply for food subsidy based on their family income (with evidence of income) renewable every year to update for household income changes.

To encourage more students to eat at school, it is essential to ensure the nutritional value of the food as well as food varieties for the three major ethnic communities in this country, so that parents will consider allowing their children to eat at school. This would also help our children to have a better understanding of other ethnic cuisines.

The ministry can encourage more students to participate in this programme through publicity and incentives. A compulsory programme forced through without proper planning and management is likely to end up in failure.

(Wong Tai-Chee has his B.A and M.A degrees in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Paris, and earned his PhD in Human Geography from the Australian National University. After teaching 20 years in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, he retired in 2013. He then worked as Distinguished Professor for two years at Guizhou University of Finance and Economics, China, and as Dean and Professor at the Southern University College, Johor until the end of 2018. He was Visiting Professor to University of Paris (Sorbonne IV), Visiting Fellow to Pekin University, Tokyo University and University of Western Australia. His main research interests are in urban and economic issues, and more recently on Malaysian politics. Besides his 15 self-authored and edited book volumes, he has written over 100 academic articles and published widely in international journals..)

Copyright © 2019 Sin Chew Media Corporation Berhad (98702-V).
All rights reserved. Contact us : [email protected]