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What Hunger Looks Like in Malaysian Schools

Source: Yayasan Generasi Gemilang

This Ramadan, as our Muslim family and friends observe their fasts, we find ourselves reflecting on what we’ve learned about student hunger in Malaysian public schools.

Last year, our team surveyed over 1,000 students for our Super Sarapan program. Super Sarapan is a feeding program that aims to provide B40 students with a meal at school to address their food insecurity and encourage them to stay in school. In addition to the survey questions, our team also spoke to other stakeholders to get a better picture of the challenges around hunger and food insecurity in our schools.

From students’ answers, our team’s observations and conversations with students and teachers, here’s what hunger looks like in Malaysian schools:

1. Hunger is not immediately obvious

Speaking to students in schools
Speaking to students at schools

Contrary to embedded stereotypes, hungry children are not necessarily skinny children. In Malaysian schools, hungry students look and behave very much like their peers. They look happy, have aspirations, they laugh and dream. Some are prefects, librarians, or school athletes. It is only when we ask the right questions that we learn about what we cannot see, that they are hungry.

Mingling with students during recess

There was a boy we met who shared that before he joined Super Sarapan, he had friends who kindly shared their food with him during recess when they noticed that he did not have food. However, the more they did that, the more self-conscious he felt about his situation and the disparity between them made obvious by his lack of food. These feelings drove him to make up excuses to avoid joining his friends. Once, he threw up after after-school sports practice because he had not eaten for a day which worried his friends, but he claimed he was just unwell instead of saying he was really hungry.

His story served as a reminder that hunger is not always what we expect it to be. Just because we don’t see a need, doesn’t mean it’s not there. Some struggles are hidden in plain sight, waiting to be discovered through genuine empathy and compassionate inquiry.

2. There's more to hunger than just feeling hungry

Another insight we have gained is that being hungry is not only when you don’t have food. Last year, we adopted a global tool that measures hunger called the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES).

Developed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the FIES scale shows us that hunger takes many forms, with food insecurity starting when an individual worries about food availability and access.

Source: Hunger and Food Insecurity by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations

Our first assessment revealed that 95% of our students experience food insecurity. Half (45%) of them were worried about their next meal, while the other half (34.2%) ate less or even skipped meals because they didn’t have enough food. This daily worry shapes their choices and experiences in profound ways.

Food Insecurity Experienced by Students Selected To Participate In Yayasan Generasi Gemilang’s Super Sarapan Program (2023)

Source: Yayasan Generasi Gemilang

Many students reported that they returned home from school to an empty house and empty cupboards. Some older students said they could cook plain rice and fry an egg for themselves. Others, especially the younger children, said they waited for their parents or older siblings to come home with food, usually at dinner time. They did not know with certainty if they had food at home for them or if they would be going to sleep with a hungry stomach.

We also observed the quantity and quality of food most students had access to was insufficient. Rice made up the bulk of their diet. In East Malaysia, students had slightly better access to vegetables and fruits, but not meat and eggs, which are more expensive. Whereas in West Malaysia, students consumed fewer fruits, vegetables, and other fiber-rich food. Access to meat was also limited – typically once a week due to financial constraints.

The lack of nutritious meals can stunt a student’s growth, reduce capacity for learning, and even impact their health. This, in turn, leads to many other issues throughout childhood, adolescence and even into adulthood.

3. Some students only have one meal a day

Most concerning of all was that 15.6% of our students fell under the “severely insecure” category. Students in this category go without food for a day or more. I recall a 14-year-old boy, Z (not his real name) during our interviews that exemplified this category. He and his brother lived with their mother, a single parent. She was the sole breadwinner of the family and worked most days from 6 am to 8 pm.

Z and his brother usually went without eating unless their mother brought food home or cooked. If she did cook after work, they would eat as late as 10 pm. A typical meal consisted of rice and vegetables, no meat. During our conversation, the boy revealed that the only meal he had had the day before was the one provided by Super Sarapan, as his mother was too tired to cook after having to work an additional shift the night before.

In Miri, a teacher recounted an incident in which a student fainted during school. Upon inquiry, they discovered that the student had experienced gastric distress due to not having eaten anything all day. Shocked by this, the teachers pooled their money to help her. This incident led to the teachers uncovering more hungry children, who frequently came to school with an empty stomach.

This degree of hunger among schoolchildren is alarming.

So what can be done to help?

Thankfully, a simple meal makes an enormous difference. Each meal costs RM5. Last year we distributed 170,481 meals thanks to generous individuals and corporations!

For many students, this meal serves as a lifeline, easing the burden of hunger that weighs heavily on their young shoulders. It's not just sustenance; it's a source of hope and relief. Some students have expressed profound gratitude, sharing how this meal provides them with their only source of meat for the day. Others have highlighted the social aspect, giving them the opportunity to socialize with their peers during mealtimes instead of isolating themselves during recess.

Additionally, some students have shared heartwarming stories of how this meal alleviates the financial strain on their parents, allowing their parents to also eat, instead of sacrificing their meals for their children's sake. Z is an example of this and was incredibly grateful to receive Super Sarapan because this meant he could return whatever pocket money he received back to his mother because he wanted to do whatever he could to help her even if it meant he just had one meal a day.

A ray of hope

Students bonding over a meal during recess

We are encouraged by the growing support from donors, especially the younger generations, towards Super Sarapan. Despite the rising food prices and the escalating cost of living over the past three years, more of you have contributed to the programme. Thank you for your compassion and empathy towards our next generation!

Knowing many more Malaysians would want to pitch in, we’ve changed our pledge donations to enable a minimum donation of RM20 monthly.

If you would like to get involved, you can donate here. All donations are tax-exempt.

Kindness shines brightly

This time of the year is a wonderful reminder to all Malaysians to not only nourish our bodies with food, but also our souls with acts of kindness and generosity.

Together, may we illuminate the path towards a brighter tomorrow, where no child goes to bed hungry, and every heart is filled with hope.

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