Parents Demand Unhealthy Food Ban in Schools

Noting a rise in obesity in their children due to sweets and snacks eaten at school, parents are now calling for a ban on unhealthy foods and drinks
Sweets and snacks on sale at a Phnom Penh school. (Kiripost/Thang Sinorn)
Sweets and snacks on sale at a Phnom Penh school. (Kiripost/Thang Sinorn)

Sitting beneath a tree at Daun Penh Primary School, Hour Chantravy told Kiripost that her child became overweight and developed hyperglycemia at just nine years old. As a result, since 2020, the mom has risen early to spend the entire day at school monitoring her child's eating habits.

The 34-year-old mother from Phnom Penh's Preaek Lieb district asserted that doctors who examined her son's health determined that he was overweight and had hyperglycemia, which might be related to the food and snacks he consumed daily.

"For almost three years, I have spent time at school watching over his eating habits. His weight has increased to nearly 50kg, so the doctor advised him to abstain from eating sweets. He hasn't reached the stage of diabetes yet, but it's possible."

Concerned about her children's consumption of unhealthy food at school, Chantravy regularly cooks nutritious meals at home for them to eat during school hours.

According to the mother's observations, some meals and snacks at schools contain preservatives for extended shelf life and high sugar levels, both of which can have serious consequences for children's health. Even though young children may not be aware of the long-term risks, unhealthy school meals could impact their health.

"Children are young and don't understand the effects of those foods. They buy condensed milk, green tea, or energy drinks for 500 riel every day. I've seen many children affected by those foods, resulting in other health issues. It seriously affects their future health," she said.

However, Chantravy remains concerned about other children's diets due to their parents not having adequate time to monitor them.

She implied that to alleviate these problems, they need to be addressed by all relevant stakeholders, including the Ministry of Education, principals, teachers, and children's parents. In particular, the principal should educate teachers about the consequences of such foods and enforce strict discipline on school food vendors.

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Every school's food must be regularly inspected by the relevant ministries. If unhealthy foods and snacks continue to be sold, vendors must face severe penalties.

Sitting next to Chantravy is Kongkea Sodalin, who resides in Ou Ruessei Ti Muoy commune and has a seven-year-old child who attends Daun Penh School. She echoed Chantravy’s concerns about the health implications of consuming foods, snacks, and beverages with high sugar levels, which can lead to diseases.

"Every day, I worry about all the little children, whether they're my own or other parents'. I don't want them to consume all these things; that's why I keep a close watch," the 39-year-old mother said.

She claims that while the Ministry has conducted inspections in the past, they have not been particularly successful. Thus, she wants the relevant ministry to impose restrictions, regularly inspect these foods and drinks, and replace them with healthier options, such as Khmer cake.

These consequences not only affect children's health and future but also impact the family's livelihood. Parents are forced to quit working and take time off to care for their kids, further depleting family resources, Sodalin told Kiripost in an interview.

"When a child is sick and a parent can't go to work, taking care of them becomes a priority. Prolonged illness in a child makes life even more challenging," she said.

Em Chanravuth, who was waiting for his 10-year-old daughter to leave Preah Norodom Primary School, told Kiripost that he is concerned about her health. He occasionally skips work to prepare a home-cooked meal for her to take to school.

"Sometimes I give her money to buy food at school, but I worry she might consume unhealthy options. That's why I try to cook from home and provide it for her," he said.

This 57-year-old father suggests that more attention is needed. He also believes that training sessions, especially targeting teachers, should be offered to help them understand the consequences. In addition, children should be educated to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy meals based on their effects.

Chao Soveacha, spokesperson at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MOEYS), informed Kiripost through Telegram that the Ministry has made formal announcements to restrict six categories of food, in strong cooperation with the School Management Committee's implementation in schools across the country.

The foods and products are expired foods, alcohol, tobacco products, unsourced foods, energy drinks, and sweetened candies.

The Ministry has also encouraged teachers and school administrators to continue to pay close attention to students’ health, as it is an important factor affecting their health, well-being, and intellectual development.

“In the case of school vendors, the School Management Committee​ has to contract with the vendor school. If those vendors violate the contract, the school management has to take administrative action against them," he stated.

The implementation of the principle of banning the sale of six categories of unhealthy food in schools has helped to reduce the number of occurrences of food poisoning that have occurred in the past among students, Soveacha added.

"The MOEYS has continued to pay close attention to students’ health and officers at all levels through the issuing mechanisms, especially through the mechanisms of the Ministry of Health and MOEYS in the education sector," he said.

The spokesperson asserted that MOEYS has been working on raising awareness to support the health of students and educators since the last mandate. He believes that the effectiveness of the implementation of this guideline requires the cooperation of local authorities, parents, students, and all other stakeholders to continue preventing the sale of the six categories of food.

Ouch Vuthy, President of the Virtuous Medical Association, told Kiripost that concerns for children's health in Cambodia have been exacerbated by various ailments, including diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney impairment, and the need for dialysis, due to inadequate inspections by the relevant ministries.

"These foods can jeopardize a child's life, putting them at risk of diabetes and kidney problems. Those who suffer from these illnesses face a harder life than death itself, as they need to spend $300 per day on dialysis, driving them into poverty."

Vuthy urged the relevant ministries to implement restrictions on the import of unhealthy foods into the Cambodian market. This should involve determining the source of import and imposing substantial fines.

At a local level, the production of unhealthy foods should be prohibited and routine inspections of school meals carried out. Educating teachers to raise awareness about the consequences of such foods in each school could also be a solution, he suggested.

"If we don't work together to create a better society and support the younger generation, our national resources will turn into social problems," according to Vuthy.

He believes that parents preparing home-cooked meals for their children is preferable. School meals often consist of processed foods and unhealthy fats. He asserts that many of these meals contain addictive substances that make children want to eat more.

On the other hand, Vuthy agrees that switching to Khmer cake is a fantastic idea in terms of taste and uniqueness. However, vendors' unwillingness to make this change is an issue. If vendors prioritize profit, they might not compromise on cake quality.

"Whatever actions they take, if not driven by good intentions, will still have implications for children's lives," Vuthy said.

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