A balanced diet is key to childhood nutrition

CHINA - It wasn't until about a decade after I left high school that education authorities in Britain began to recognize the importance of child nutrition.

Even then, it was only because research had shown without a doubt that the country was facing an obesity time bomb.

In the 1980s, the only things on the menu in my school canteen were burgers, chicken nuggets, French fries (or chips, as Britons call them) and a host of other deep-fried delights. Little thought went into the amount of salt, calories and saturated fat students were eating.

Today, although these foods are still available, many canteens also offer a selection of healthy alternatives, such as pasta, vegetable salad and soup, and students' waists are slowly getting smaller.

Like the rest of the world, China is also dealing with the issue of nutrition in schools.

A report released this month by the China Development Research Foundation said Chinese students aged 10 to 13 are in grave physical condition, adding that roughly 12 per cent are affected by malnutrition.

Yet, authorities have recognized that a healthy diet is essential for a young mind, and through pilot projects such as the one being run at Xinglong Primary School, which I visited during a short stay in Dafang county, they are trying to give them one.

Consisting of just two dilapidated buildings, Xinglong is among several village schools in Southwest China's Guizhou province that have recently introduced a free lunch program. Its "canteen" is nothing more than a storeroom where teachers dish out bowls of noodle soup and tripe. Meals are eaten in the classroom or on the playground.

Poor nutrition is, of course, closely linked to poverty, and Guizhou happens to be one of the poorest areas of China.

Yet, while the government has been working to raise incomes in this region, including preferential policies to boost employment and other opportunities, it must remember that to guarantee young people will be fit to take advantage, it needs to make sure they enjoy a healthy, balanced diet when they most need it: at school.

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