By Thomas Bwire
Experiences of untreated chronic malnutrition have left over 2 million children in Kenya under the age of 5 stunted. With obesity on the rise and over 100,000 children aged 0-14 are living with HIV and AIDS creeping into this mix, it’s becoming apparent that good and affordable nutrition is key to reduction of childhood morbidity and mortality.
What do your children eat? Are they getting nutritional value in their meals?
In Kambi Muru village, Hellen Irazia has just finished preparing breakfast for her family. She wakes up her three school-going children, who share a mattress on the floor. All of them are girls. Josephine Chamavanga aged 12, Dora Atieno aged 7 and Samara Akinyi aged 5. A colourful curtain loosely divides the living room from the bedroom and kitchen in this one roomed-semi permanent house.
After a quick shower, the children sit on the floor to take breakfast before the long school day begins. Black tea and a piece of mandazi for every child is on the menu today. It is the same every day; enough to keep their tummies from rumbling when hunger strikes before lunchtime, six hours later. The total cost of this breakfast is about Ksh. 50 or $ 0.50
Irazia gives each of them a lunchbox as they leave for school. Their ideal lunch box is an old simple reused ice cream plastic tin. They smile and Akinyi checks her lunchbox only to find another piece of mandazi and a half-full bottle (250ml) of black tea, this is their packed lunch.
As the three siblings leave for school, Irazia sees them off for a few steps and wishes them productive learning. She cannot help but confirm that too short for their age while their hair has a rather light brown rugged hue; a sign of malnutrition.
Last month, a nutritionist at a local clinic, Tabitha Clinic informed her that in Kibera, school-going children are generally underweight due to malnutrition. The nutritionist advised her to incorporate foods that add nutritional value for her girls. However, this will be challenging because Irazia does not have a stable income to provide the preferred healthy foods.
Irazia’s financial support is from his husband. She lost her job after her maternity leave of her last born son who is now one and a half years old. As a casual laborer, she did not pursue the unfair termination.
“I give them the best. That is all I can afford,” says the 33-year-old mother who never had the privileged to get an education. She spends Ksh. 200/ $2 every week to buy the mandazi that serves both as a breakfast accompaniment and their lunch. Her husband gives her Ksh. 1,000/$ 10 to cater for all family needs every week. This leaves little to no money to buy healthy snack and lunch options.
“I cannot afford to buy any foods that add nutritional value for my children. I also need to buy food, water, and other household necessities,” laments Irazia.
Her husband, who works as a casual labourer at a local road construction company is not interested in the children’s lunch box. He has delegated the role to his wife.“I wish we can plan for our children’s meals together. We can agree to use the little we have to prepare better meals,” adds Irazia.
On the other side of the rail track from Irazia’s family, another family has considered a slightly healthy snack option and tries to observe it every day. Siyama Ismail lives in Ayany estate with her six-year-old grandson and she is motivated by her childhood to pack a nutritive snack, to for the mid-morning break, as lunch is provided by the school.
“When growing up, every food in our home was good food. We ate boiled maize for breakfast and even carried it to school. Cassava and sweet potatoes were other options,” says Siyama.
However, she is saddened that the young generation of parents today worship junk food and serve it to children generously. It is a popularity and class contest, she says. The preparation and packing of these foods can cause untold health dangers, she added.
“I am keen on the contents of my grandson’s lunch/snack box. On some days he carries homemade pancake, eggs on some days and a cheese sandwich on others. A bottle of water is always in his bag” she said.
Other options for 6-year-old Mubaraka Abadullai include yogurt, roasted peanuts, and sausages once in a while. She has also taught him about a healthy lifestyle. As a rule, Siyama never gives money to her grandson to avoid the temptation to buy junk foods like crisps, smokies, popcorn as well as juices that have been stripped off their nutritional value .
“They have zero nutrition value,” she says
For a six-year-old, Siyama has to also go an extra step to ensure the food is attractive, for her grandson to enjoy will getting the nutrition he needs.
“I make the food in different shapes like cubes and triangles and add vegetables. This makes the food colouring and encourages him to eat,” she adds.
Siyama believes that teaching the child about healthy foods goes a long way in ensuring that they also make independent food choices.She further emphasizes the delicate yet critical role of male parents or guardians’ involvement in the preparation of meals meant for both school and at home.
“Allow the fathers to be part of this routine. They can lead discussions on preparing a simple menu,” she said noting that majority of the fathers today do not care what their children eat, as long as there is food for the family.
Gladys Mugambi a nutrition expert at the Ministry of Health in charge of ‘Scaling up Nutrition’ at the Ministry of Health defines a lunch box as a child’s packed meal. She advises that it should be balanced containing the various foods classes These include foods like carbohydrates that provide energy and proteins that help in building and repair of the body tissues. Other essentials are vitamins, mineral salts, water and fat, and oils.
She recommends that parents and guardians should add nutritive foods to children’s meals including snacks by checking the right amount of food packed is balanced and palatable for them to enjoy the meal.
“The food should be lovingly and hygienically prepared. When a child looks at the box, it should be appealing to encourage them to eat. For example, a simple technique in serving overnight Ugali is coating it with an egg and packing vegetables neatly,” notes Mugambi.
Sadly, Mugambi warns that Kenya is racing fast towards the obesity lane, children included. She is concerned that junk food like pizza, cakes and sweets have become fashionable lunch box options.
“Their preparation is a mystery and for the items on the shelves such as the juices, they contain a lot of sugar which is unhealthy during the early years of a child’s development,” she said while calling for fresh juices to be made at home. She also calls for more involvement of both parents in meal preparations, where possible.
“Create time to prepare your child’s snack and packed lunch. Let us be careful so that we do not make unhealthy choices for them. The damage is irreversible,” says Mugambi.
According to the 2014 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey, good nutrition is a prerequisite for a country’s development. The 2010 Constitution of Kenya recognizes the need for adequate food and nutrition as a human right and Article 43 observes that every person has the right to be free from hunger and the right to adequate food of acceptable quality. Article 53 further guarantees every child to basic nutrition.
Whereas these are set as the standard for every child in Kenya, it is important to note that personal responsibility in our families and collective duty in the communities ensure that Kenya has healthy children.