By Cheung Kwan Lok
In a survey investigating the fulfillment of basic needs in over 200 economically disadvantaged Hong Kong households, the Alliance for Children Development Rights found that nearly 40 percent of parent respondents were unable to include meat or fish in two of their children’s daily meals.
Pointing out that this finding indicates a lack of money and possible child malnutrition in low-income families, the Alliance – a non-profit – urged the government to lower the threshold for subsidy eligibility and set up a per-child allowance scheme, in order to ensure the physical, mental and thus educational well-being of all school-aged children.
However, children from low-income families who have reached the meat/fish standard may be exposed to even greater health issues, and the proposed solution overlooks non-financial factors that lead to child malnourishment in this social group.
Without further classification concerning methods of food preparation, the categories of “meat” and “fish” are not necessarily indicative of nutritional benefits or cost.
In a Chinese University study on the relationship between Hong Kong students’ academic performance and factors known to affect learning (e.g., diet, study methods, motivation, confidence, family background), the researchers found that, while foods rich in protein had a positive impact on test performance, students who regularly consumed convenience foods and processed meat had lower test scores and were more likely to be in low-ability groups.
This finding can be partly explained by common manufacturing practices of the processed food industry. To enrich flavour and prolong shelf life, many manufacturers resort to food additives such as MSG, sweeteners and preservatives, most of which have been associated with low attention levels and behavioural issues in school-aged children.
Counter-intuitive as it may seem, there are reasons other than cost that encourage disadvantaged households to stock processed foods, whether or not meat or fish is included as an ingredient.
In the knowledge-based economy of Hong Kong, low paying jobs are characterized by long working time, physically demanding labour, and low educational requirements. Buying fresh but inexpensive ingredients at street markets and managing to cook amid other household chores are therefore incredibly difficult for parents, who are typically required to engage in energy-sapping duties at work.
Having to work early in the morning or get home late at night may also compel parents to delegate the task of preparing meals to children themselves. The obviously preferable food choices are processed foods such as precooked rice and preserved meat, which are mostly microwaveable and therefore easier, quicker and safer for children to prepare on their own.
A lack of nutritional knowledge and information literacy may make parents underestimate the health threats associated with food additives and nutritional imbalance, and thus may cause their children to eat unwholesome food throughout their childhood and teenage years.
Adding to low-income households’ difficulties with preparing meals from fresh, healthful materials are limitations imposed by poor living conditions. Families who live in subdivided flats or makeshift rooftop “houses,” barely have space for a small fridge, a microwave and a rice steamer, let alone a gas stove, wok, pots and a cutting board.
The constraints preventing children in low-income families from eating quality diets (i.e., lack of time, energy, knowledge and space) seem difficult to alleviate with increased financial assistance directed to the needy households. Is there a magical measure that can miraculously address most, if not all, of the above-mentioned hurdles?
In countries such as the United States, New Zealand, Canada and Australia, there are state-financed, not-for-profit School Breakfast Programs (SBPs) which provide quality breakfast at a low or even free price to pre-tertiary school pupils.
Compared with family-directed subsidies, SBPs have the advantage of ensuring every student in need is provided with a nutritiously balanced breakfast on a daily basis and taxpayers’ money is economically spent on the provision of it under government assistance and monitoring.
Research evidence from cross-sectional, longitudinal and interview-based studies has found that implementation of SBPs resulted in improved mathematics performance and reduced tardiness, anxiety and hyperactivity in students.
As to provision of dinner, the government should consider increasing funding to nighttime child care services and community centres, and negotiate after-school meal programmes and reductions in charge for families in need. This also helps address other areas of insufficiency found in the ACDR survey: leisure items, learning resources, social activity and study space.
Giving money to families living below the poverty line in the hope that higher allowances would naturally lead to higher quality of sustenance for their children seems to be a logically sound solution. But, like society itself, societal problems are never as simple and straightforward as they appear to be.
Cheung Kwan Lok is a graduate of the Hong Kong Institute of Education. He majored in English Language Education. His work has appeared in the South China Morning Post.