Riau, Indonesia - A group of young girls wearing white headdresses, maroon batik shirts and matching skirts laugh loudly, dangling their legs and pushing each other playfully before suddenly exchanging whispers into each other's ears. Among them is Ratih, a cheerful seven-year old girl in first grade at Tabing Elementary School.
"This is our break," she says while displaying a row of subtly stained front teeth, as if she's just eaten chocolate. While in fact she has, that's only one part of the story; one-fifth of the story to be precise.
This morning, Ratih and her classmates are moving between five little stops - marked by a few clusters of tables and chairs - set up in one of the classrooms. The hustle and bustle taking place this morning is part of Mercy Corps' Sumatra Healthy Schools Program. Today, Mercy Corps Indonesia staff members are studying the effects of iron fortified soymilk consumption on school children. Mercy Corps has distributed the fortified soymilk to the school since last August, with the aim to reduce the rate of anemia in Riau's school children.
Anemia is a condition caused by iron deficiency. If severe, it low levels of hemoglobin in the blood can affect a child's ability to learn. Anemia can be addressed by better consumption of iron-fortified foods and drinks, such as the soymilk distributed here.
Mercy Corps is treating over 170,000 children and teachers for anemia in schools around Sumatra.
Ratih braves the five stops
The evaluation at each school is identical and involves five distinct steps, called stops. The first stop is registration, followed by the taking of blood samples at the second stop. The third stop is an interview where students share their eating habits and hygienic behaviors with the program's staff. At the fourth stop, the students submit the results sheet from their blood tests before finally taking a dose of de-worming pills along with some fortified soymilk at the last stop.
Ratih is among the first ten students to go through the five stops. Her smile quickly fades immediately after she passes the first stop. There is a tinge of worry in her eyes as she looks at the strangers asking her questions.
Despite the unwelcome surprise of a blood test at the second stop, Ratih bravely drags herself to the third stop and shares what she had for breakfast that morning. At this stop, she also answers a number of questions about whether she washes her hands, how often and just how she does it. After a daunting round of questions, she hobbles to the next station.
What Ratih doesn't know as she turns in her blood test results is that she is in the clear, although barely. Her score is not much above the rate that defines anemia for this age group - in fact, she's the only child in her class that is not anemic. However, every single non-anemic student is a small victory for Mercy Corps' program here, since the local rate of anemia hovers at a staggering 53 percent.
Ratih relaxes only after she finished. A little piece of candy - a tiny reward for enduring the five stops this morning - is enough to bring a cheerful smile back to her face.