Food program for poor aims to improve child care

Agriculture Minister Arturo R. Tanco JR. was clearly delighted. "I just got handed $20 million," he said. Not quite, actually. But he did get a promise from the United States Agency for International Development to try to help a new program to combat widespread malnourishment among Philippine children.

Together with another $20 million from the Philippine government, the money will be used to launch a new pilot program, hopefully by 1982, for providing poor families with more nutritious food -- "something along the line of food stamps," Mr. Tanco says. "Our nutritionists are working out a package."

The Philippine government was shocked several years ago when the results of a program of weighing 5 million preschool children showed that over 5 percent suffered from severe (third degree) malnutrition, another 25 percent from second-degree malnutrition, and 45 percent more from mild undernourishment.

"Malnutrition is broad but shallow," said Mr. Tanco. It is worst with the children of tenant farmers, landless laborers, slash-and-burn farmers, subsistence fishermen, and city slum dwellers.

The situation proved embarassing to the government of President Ferdinand Marcos when a critical foreign press began to cite the statistics.

These noted that Malaysia, Taiwan, and Japan, starting in 1950 from about the same nutritional status, had done much better in relieving the problem.

The experts suspect that the statistics in such nations as Pakistan or India may minimize the problem. Nonetheless, Roman Catholic Filipinos have had a high birthrate, an unevern distribution of income, and, until the last several years, relatively disappointing increases in food production, factors that could prompt high malnutrition.

Malnourishment in the Philippines is not a case of children "falling over on the road," explained Mrs. Imelda R. Marcos, "first lady and minister of human settlements," in an interview in Malacanang Palace. "It is mostly malinformation and the wrong cultural attitude about food."

One problem is that rice gruel, traditionally used to wean a child, contains inadequate protein for the child if it gets little else to eat. Another cause of malnutrition among children is the tendency of expectant or nursing mothers to sacrifice their food consumption on behalf of their husbands working in the field. They should rather have about 30 percent more food, experts say. And, of course, malnutrition is clearly related to poverty and to family size. The more children a family has, the more likely it will have malnourished children. The youngest children, less able to compete for food at the table, suffer most.

To deal with these cultural conditions, Mr. Tanco says his new program will provide protein supplements for the entire family -- not jsut the children.

Most of the malnutrition, he figures, can be cured with a few drops of coconut oil or a handful of dried fish added to the rice meals of the poor. Getting rid of internal parasites, as sanitary conditions improve, also helps.

"Now we know the gravity of the problem," Mrs. Marcos said. "We have a really meaningful national effort to eradicate and solve our nutrition problem."

She is especially concerned that children suffering from severe malnutrition may also be hit by mental retardation. "That would be disastrous," she said. "The children are the future of our country."

The nutrition program has trained more than 5,000 "barangay [district] nutrition scholars' in the requirements of better nutrition. These hafe been sent through the cities and countryside to spread their new knowledge. Some are provided "nutri-buses" equipped with videotape equipment, a "communicator," and a driver.

One program giving mothers nutrition classes has reduced malnutrition by 50 percent among their children.

A "nutri-pak" has been developed which, at a cost of about 4 cents (US) per meal, can dramatically improve the health of a badly malnourished child in two or three weeks, Mrs. Marcos noted.

The program also aims of encouraging backyard production of nutritious foods such as legumes, root crops, and green leafy and yellow vegetables; and the small-scale raising of livestock and fish ponds as a family, school, or community activity. More than 90,000 home gardens have been established.

Actually, the Philippines does not lack for food. Last year it exported some 230,000 tons of surplus rice to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brazil. The country used to have import rice.

However, food, especially nutritious food, must get into the right mouths to prevent malnourishment.

Mr. Tanco hopes to expand his new pilot nutrition program to the entire nation. He says he will tell the national legislators, "What are we going to do with the rest of the people? Let them starve?"

The program will be highly publicized, primarily through radio spots. "If we can sell soap and Coca-Cola, we can sell nutrition," he says.

Moreover, the Department of Agriculture in the 1980s aims to put more emphasis on crops and animals providing high levels of protein.

Poultry and swine are to continue as the main source of animal protein. Other sources to be tapped are increased cattle production, fish, and protein-rich legumes such as mung bean, soybean, winged bean cowpea, and peanuts.

One study found that if the nation's irrigated ricelands were also used for fish culture, as much as 140,000 tons of fish could be produced right away.

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