Bringing nutrition into focusMonday, October 11, 2021
BY PATRICIA THOMPSON
Once again we recognise the month of September as a time to highlight the problem of malnutrition in our population. Last year we focused on the effects of COVID-19 on nutrition; however, this year we must address the issue of our needy children missing out on critical sources of nourishment such as lunch and breakfast while out of school.
As we prepare to resume face-to-face classes, we note the announcement by the Ministry of Education that some 120,000 children have been missing from the education system. The Jamaica Island Nutrition Network (JINN) was left to wonder if some of these children were among those identified in the research we did last year at the height of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
During the summer of 2020, JINN carried out a project which included — among other interventions — visting six inner-city schools to weigh and measure grades 5 and 6 students attending summer camp prior to entering the secondary school system. The camp targeted communities that were said to have been “riddled with gang violence and high levels of school dropouts (usually at adolescence to join gangs)”.
Research measurements revealed that 16 per cent were malnourished, 7.4 per cent were underweight for height, and 8.7 per cent were overweight. Of the underweight, boys outnumbered girls 3.5 times, but overweight girls outnumbered boys four times.
The study suggested that the following steps were required to improve nutrition among schoolchildren:
1) Government should develop policy to have professional nutritional interventions in school communities.
2) Better targeted feeding strategies, especially from puberty, based on sex as well as socio-economic status, as used in the Programme for Advancement through Health and Education (PATH), for both schools and homes.
3) Better one-on-one parent/student education on feeding children appropriately at different ages as a strategy towards mitigating the serious problems of obesity and underweight. Possibly, this could also help to reduce the level of violence involving youth in Jamaica.
Dilemma of public messages
The latter conclusion was based on interviews with some parents who had stopped giving their children beverages containing sugar following public advisory messages, but did not realise that, as a result of removing sugar from their diet, the children would lose weight. Once this happened, these beverages were reintroduced, especially since it was also a source of hydration. This has not, however, solved the problem since parents are still in need of guidance on how to provide the nutritionional requirements to meet the overall health and fitness needs of their children.
Another example of parents misinterpreting health messages relates to the popular catch phrase “contains less sugar”. There are some products for which the front-of-package information makes the claim to contain less sugar – in some cases as much as 33 per cent – than normally required. Parents may give preference to these 'healthy options' to the detriment of nutritional health as, oftentimes, the calorie count in these products can be high. While this may be appropriate for athletes requiring the increased calories from the reformulation of carbohydrates and protein in these products, this change could contribute to obesity, especially among sedentary girls.
Schoolchildren must be healthy in order to learn and perform optimally. Data from the USA indicate that the children who benefited from continued school-feeding programmes during the lockdown months demonstrated better mental health and expressed that they had better coping skills when faced with violence and abuse.
Malnutrition covers a continuum of health conditions related, directly or indirectly, to poor nutrition and spans from underweight and undernourishment to overweight. Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are also related to poor nutrition and seen in school-age children, as well as adults.
Public advisory messages are welcome but these alone will not achieve the desired result. The Government should make nutrition management and prevention a priority for our school system by rethinking its approach to school-feeding and education.
While public messages raise awareness, these should be supported by direct nutritional intervention in our school system, similar to that which is provided in our mother and child clinics in the health-care system to get the best start for babies.
As demonstrated with the eradication of protein-energy malnutrition years ago, the winning strategy must involve trained nutrition practitioners in our school system, and the country is certainly not short on these skills.
The time for action is now.
Patricia Thompson is a school nutrition specialist at Jamaica Island Nutrition Network (JINN). Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.