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If you’ve ever eaten at your child’s school can­teen and found the food be­low par, you wouldn’t be alone in that thought.

‘Af­ter vis­it­ing schools and see­ing what can­teens serve, I dis­cov­ered a huge gap be­tween what’s on of­fer and what kids really need,’ said Anthea Mu­lakala, founder of Makan­lah, a so­cial en­ter­prise that’s try­ing to in­tro­duce health­ier menus to lo­cal schools. ‘That’s Makan­lah’s goal – to try and make healthy food ac­ces­si­ble to all kids.’

‘Nu­tri­tion is linked to learn­ing,’ ex­plained Anthea. ‘Count­less stud­ies show that kids who eat healthy meals ac­tu­ally do bet­ter in school and score higher on tests be­cause they’re more alert. The op­po­site is also true – when they con­sume heav­ily fried food and soft drinks, they per­form poorly, be­cause you get this sugar high that goes into a slump and end up lethar­gic and lack­ing at­ten­tion.’

More rea­son to eat healthy: Health sta­tis­tics from pre­ced­ing years con­tin­u­ously show that Malaysia is the most obese coun­try in South­east Asia. On a re­lated note, one-in-five Malaysian chil­dren are over­weight or obese. Even so, lit­tle ef­fort has gone into pro­vid­ing health­ier meals at school can­teens.

Healthy can­teen fare isn’t al­ways the first fac­tor par­ents take into con­sid­er­a­tion when choos­ing a school for their chil­dren. Qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion, fees, lo­ca­tion and ac­ces­si­bil­ity are of­ten placed higher on the lad­der of im­por­tance.

Part of Makan­lah’s out­reach pro­gramme sees the team con­duct­ing road shows, sur­vey­ing stu­dents and or­gan­is­ing food tast­ings.

‘We get the kids in­volved by hav­ing them fill out on­line or pa­per sur­veys – a lot of poorer kids don’t have ac­cess to the in­ter­net. The sim­ple sur­vey asks them about their food pref­er­ences, how of­ten they eat in the school can­teen, how much they spend on av­er­age, and what kind of food would they like to see.’

The sur­vey re­sults are al­ways a pleas­ant sur­prise. Can­teen ‘wish lists’ re­veal that stu­dents crave the likes of fresh fruit, smooth­ies, pasta and sand­wiches.

In a sep­a­rate sur­vey, par­tic­i­pants have to com­plete the fol­low­ing sen­tence: ‘I would eat can­teen food more of­ten if…’ Some re­oc­cur­ring an­swers were: ‘If the can­teen was cleaner’, ‘If the food was health­ier’, ‘If they cooked with less oil’, and ‘If there were no rats and in­sects.’

‘This tells us that kids want healthy food and they want va­ri­ety,’ said Anthea.

The next step calls for the co­op­er­a­tion of chefs and spon­sors.

‘Sau­jana Ho­tels and Re­sorts has part­nered with us to do food tast­ings. Their chefs get so ex­cited be­cause they want to do some­thing com­mu­nity-ori­ented.’

Us­ing the sur­vey re­sults as guidance, the chefs cook up mul­ti­ple dishes in sam­ple sizes, which are then scored by the kids. The fi­nal ki­dap­proved menu gets in­ducted into a school’s can­teen fare.

‘What we’re pre­sent­ing is a win­win model. We’re not tak­ing over the can­teen, we’re not sell­ing food from out­side, and we’re giv­ing an op­por­tu­nity to can­teen op­er­a­tors to re­ceive train­ing from pro­fes­sional chefs,’ said Anthea. ‘If schools adopt the Makan­lah pro­gramme, the stu­dents be­come in­volved, as will par­ents. And then you get a com­mu­nity-based ini­tia­tive.’ To find out more, check out their Face­book at www.face­book.com/ MakanLahSE. Makan­lah’s dream of health­ier school lunches can only go into full ef­fect with the sup­port and in­volve­ment of Par­ent­Teacher As­so­ci­a­tions, part­ner chefs and spon­sors. Con­tact anthea­mu­lakala@gmail.com to find out how to in­tro­duce Makan­lah’s ini­tia­tive to your child’s school.

Makan­lah takes a com­mu­nity based ap­proach to eat­ing at school – kind of like Jamie Oliver

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