Jakarta, Indonesia — Hugo is an energetic and outgoing 5-year-old who lives in the northern Jakarta slum of Tugu Utara. He and his classmates at Flamboyan Uka, a small neighborhood preschool, are all attentive and well-behaved when a group of Mercy Corps visitors enter the classroom. But Hugo stands out — and not only because he has a permanent smile on his face and a boisterous laugh. He is small for his age, and his front teeth are rotted.
Ask a small child anywhere in the U.S. and here in Indonesia what their favorite thing to eat is and you’ll likely get the same answer: candy. "Eat too many sweets and they’ll rot your teeth" is a mother's familiar refrain in both places, and for children in Jakarta’s slums, it is all too often a warning that becomes real.
Snack food allowance
Food carts seem to line nearly every street in Jakarta. Indonesia's capital is home to 13 million people, many of whom rely on these ready-to-eat foods sold in neighborhood streets and alleys. The low cost and convenience make them an attractive option for families who are often too busy to prepare food or lack facilities, fuel or transportation to purchase and prepare raw foods.
Hugo and many of his fellow schoolmates get a food allowance from their parents, which they usually spend on the vending carts lining the school property, hoping to get a cut.
The options are pretty unhealthy.
"My parents give me money each day for snacks when I get hungry at school," Hugo says. "I like to buy potato chips and candy from the carts."
Because children fill up on snacks that are high in sugar, they often aren’t hungry for other healthier food to supplement their nutritional needs.
“Children under the age of five have nutritional needs that are very specific to aid their healthy mental and physical growth,” explains Vanessa Dickey, Mercy Corps’ health and nutrition advisor. “When children fill up on foods high in sugar and lacking nutritional value day after day, it leaves lasting health affects.”
This high-sugar diet leads to high rates of anemia, which can stunt growth and undermine their ability to concentrate in school. Anemia rates in children are above 50 percent in many areas of the city, according to the Jakarta Post.
Promoting better child health
Mercy Corps is working to reduce child malnutrition by educating parents and teachers on better eating habits. It's part of our Urban Poverty Reduction Strategy.
Mercy Corps health experts have begun to informally educate the teachers at Flamboyan Uka on healthy foods and ways to spread the message to children and parents to positively change the eating habits of their students.
“I asked my daughter's teachers what foods are better for her, because I know how she likes potato chips and candy," says Hani, mother of a 4-year-old named Karina. "They told me to serve her more vegetables at home and talk to her about better foods to buy from the carts. I can tell Karina is healthier than other kids because she doesn’t get sick as often and has a strong body. I realize it’s because she eats better than other children in our neighborhood.”
A new type of food cart
Teachers at Flamboyan Uka regularly confiscate candy and other unhealthy foods from students that they purchase from the food carts near the school. But soon there will be a wide selection of nearby street foods that teachers will smile at.
Mercy Corps is working with five entrepreneurs to build food carts that serve nutritious snacks using recipes designed by our health team. The carts are being designed by the advertising firm Saatchi and Saatchi according to criteria that should make them attractive to small children. For instance, the carts will be colorful, clean and showcase their offerings at a child's eye level.
Menu options are still being worked out, but they could include dishes such as rice porridge with chicken and vegetables, fish and potato in coconut milk stew, and tempeh with peanut sauce.
Armed with better information — and better options — students like Hugo and Karina at schools across Jakarta, Mercy Corps hopes, will have the advantage of a healthy childhood.