A study has revealed that school-aged children who eat more fruit and vegetables, have a better mental well-being. However, healthy eating isn’t an option for the majority of South African kids and experts believe the only way forward is to expand the monthly child support grant and strengthen the National School Nutrition Program (NSNP).

Research from the University of East Anglia’s Health & Social Care Partners (UEAHSCP) confirmed that: “Higher fruit and vegetable consumption was significantly associated with better mental well-being in secondary pupils. Also, the type of breakfast and lunch consumed, by both primary and secondary pupils, was significantly associated with well-being.”

The study also found that school-aged children who ate five or more portions of fruit and veg a day had the highest scores for mental wellbeing.

Changes needed

On a local front, Angelika Grimbeek, Nutrition Programme Manager at the Healthy Living Alliance (HEALA), said more effort needs to be made to create a child-centered food system. She said the South African Child Gauge 2020 should act as a point of reference so that malnutrition can be replaced with fully developed children who are able to reach their full potential. 

“As we know in SA, attaining a diverse diet that includes different food groups is not possible for households. People are living within a broken food system where nutritious food is unaffordable and ultra-processed foods are readily available. Imagine a mother who only has R450 a month to care for and feed their child. The possibility of spending this precious income on five or more portions of fruits and vegetables a day is impossible. Therefore, the expansion of the Child Support Grant to meet the food poverty line is necessary along with the introduction of the Maternity Support grant and the Basic Income Grant (BIG),” she said.

Breakfast boost

Nkosinathi Shange (15), a Grade 11 pupil at a local high school, agreed that eating a proper breakfast is helpful.

“I have always skipped breakfast and I’d feel tired during classes. But, this changed ever since my mom insisted that I eat every morning. My concentration levels have definitely improved. I wouldn’t suggest a heavy meal, but fruit and cereal are enough for me. It works well because I’m always on the go,” said Shange. 

The research also highlighted how the lack of nutrition  – gained through fruit and vegetables – could be compared to children who experience violence at home.

“The National School Nutrition Program (NSNP) is another essential and successful lifeline for many South African children. Strengthening this program will ensure that children are able to receive a meal every day. Organisations like SECTION27 and Equal education have been successful in monitoring the implementation of the NSNP during COVID-19,” explained Grimbeek. 

Nutrition programs lacking

Nompilo Langa (16) goes to school in Umlazi, KwaZulu-Natal. Her school has a nutrition program in place which helps children who can’t afford to bring their own lunch.

She said that the menu doesn’t include many fruits and vegetables. “I eat occasionally, and I have not received fruit or had a meal with a side vegetable. But, it’s helpful for children who depend on this food daily,” she added. 

Warning labels crucial

Grimbeek said that although the expansion and introduction of social support and the NSNP are vital, efforts need to be coupled through food regulation initiatives. One such example is the introduction of front of package warning labels on processed foods.

“These warning labels will be able to inform caregivers and help them make better choices with the money they have. These labels will also help the NSNP to better assess the quality of food provided through the program,” said Grimbeek.

* The South African Child Gauge is published annually by the Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town, to monitor progress towards realising children’s rights. – Health-e News