Opinion

Malnutrition, The Nigerian Child And School Feeding As A Strategy By AbdulFatah Adekunle Owolabi

Food is very essential to human life. This explains why foods consumed by both adults and children must be nutritionally rich in content.

Any nutritional imbalance poses serious health problem, particularly to children – between suckling age up to ten years.

It goes without saying that children need high calorie and balanced diet food for bodily growth and mental formations.

A balanced diet is one that gives the body the nutrition it needs to function properly. An inadequacy or imbalance in diet causes malnutrition.

In medical and health parlance, malnutrition is generally a very broad term which refers to both under-nutrition (sub-nutrition) and over-nutrition.

An individual is said to be malnourished or suffering from under nutrition if his or her dietary intake does not provide the adequate calories and protein for body maintenance and growth.

People can also be malnourished or suffer from over-nutrition if they consume too many calories.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), malnutrition is the gravest single threat to global public health.

And it is the children who are by far affected by malnutrition because they need nourishing foods in their formative stages more that any group.

In essence, the quality of staple foods available to children in this early stage of their lives goes a long way in determining their development, brain functions and health in their later years.

Sadly, there are approximately 1.7 million severely and acutely malnourished children under five years of age in Nigeria, accounting for a tenth of the global total of children suffering from malnutrition.

And close to a thousand Nigerian children, according to WHO reports, die of malnutrition-related causes every day, totalling about 361,000 each year.

Predominantly, a larger percentage of these malnourished children are located in the northern part of the country.

A Punch Newspaper editorial of 28 July 2013, entitled: “High malnutrition in Nigerian children,” highlighted this ugly scenario by quoting a 2013 report by the Federal Ministry of Health, which states thus: “41 per cent of Nigerian children under age five suffer stunted growth as a result of malnutrition.”

The survey, conducted in all the states of the federation by the ministry, according to the editorial, showed that acute malnutrition is prevalent among children in all the states in the North, with a population put at as high as 80 per cent of the region’s children population.

Last month, the Nigerian Tribune reported that 2,072 children died of malnutrition in Zamfara State alone in what could easiy capture as one of the worst humanitarian cases of the time.

The trend has been so alarming that the Federal Government in conjunction with the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) had to quickly intervene in 2014 before it snowballed into a national crisis.

That prompt intervention, according to reports, reached more than a million children with a successful and cost-effective treatment for acutely malnourished children.

After the exercise, UNICEF, disclosed that over a million children were reached with life-saving malnutrition treatment in the Community-based Management of Acute Malnutrition (CMAM) introduced into 11 Northern Nigerian states where malnutrition poses a great threat.

It is instructive to know that acute malnutrition leads to stunted growth of children, which in turn causes disproportional physical body formationsas well as reduce intellectual capacities.

Many more had been saved through such interventions in the past, not only in Nigeria but across the African continent, mostly in war-ravaged countries like Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi and Central African Republic.

This is as absurd as it is unacceptable in Nigeria of 21st century where malaria, polio and other minor ailments still pose serious health threatsto children.
Indeed, this trend must be reversed as a matter of urgency or else millions of the nation’s tomorrow leaders may grow up to be infirm in body and deficient in intelligent quotient.

Sincerely, I cannot agree more with some of the suggestions offered in the PUNCH editorial referred to above.

One is an appeal to the 36 states of the federation to introduce free feeding system in the primary schools and feed the pupils with rich nutritional foods.

In this wise, what the rest 35 states need to do is to understudy and adopt the school feeding scheme, which Osun State started in 2012 and ChristenedO’ Meal.

The Osun example is part of a programme of producing healthy, energetic and intelligent pupils by giving them balanced diet their bodies need to grow.

In a week, more than 252, 000 pupils take nourishing foods and fruits that are rich in protein, vitamins, minerals and other food nutrients.

Of particular interest is the introduction of red cocoyam, which nutritionists have confirmed contains high content of protein.

The government of Osun was able to go this far because it involved nutritionists and medical experts in the formulation of the food pack before the free feeding scheme finally took off.

The introduction of cocoyam therefore added to the sources of protein that enrich the food pack of the pupils.

The Osun example has ignited a revoltionary job creation opportunity, enhanced education through increased enrolments and other benefits. Certainly, feeding over 250000 children daily with locally sourced food materials cannot but be impactful on agriculture, supply chains and other sectors with direct or remote relationships.

Ironically, while some people have acknowledged this laudable school free feeding scheme and are calling on other states to take a cue from Osun, it was recently the subject of a negative campaign especially in the face of the challenges posed by revenue shortages which brought about a national wage crisis.

Indeed, in a seemingly errorneous assessment of the scheme,a few people had their ways to the pages of some of the newspapers with the calls for an end to this scheme. The expected ‘gain’ of that according to those behind the calls, was that money saved from stoppage of the scheme would therefore be diverted to paying salaries. What a grievous error of judgment.

At this critical time when there should be an intervention by the Federal Government to arrest the wave of malnutrition spreading like harmattan wide fire in the country, the Osun example offers very great opportunity as a template for a nationwide application.

Perhaps, one of the ways Nigeria could show her seriousness lies in showing commitment to a nationwide implimentation of the school feeding programme by making it a national policy.

When it was reported two years ago that the Governor of Osun, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola was invited to the British Parliament to deliver a talk on how Osun was executing its free meal programme, it was obvious that something worthy of being studied had been noticed beyond the confines of the Nigerian state.

Nigeria does not need to travel far in its search for a quick way out. A critical study of the Osun template in school feedings offers ways to solving the problem and therefore, helping the malnourished child.

We should emulate other nations of the world, which have solved the problem of malnutrition and reshaped the life of their children for the sake of tomorrow.
This unending spiral of life-sapping scourge must be stopped. And urgently too!

*AbdulFatah Adekunle Owolabi, a journalist and Law student, writes from Osogbo

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