Kindergarten 101 On Hunger

by Juan L. Mercado

“The lola sat down and ate the rice I gave. Then, she cried,” our 4-year old grand-daughter Kathie explained. “There were two children with her,”  7-year old sister Kristin  added. “They ate the sardines I put on their rice”.
Welcome to  Kindergarten 101 on hunger.

Kristin is a first grader and Kathie is in kindergarten.Both study at Cebu International School. Sundays, their parents drive them to where grimy out-of-school kids cluster. The  two share food packs they’ve prepared.

“Happiness never decreases by being shared,” the Buddha taught. For now, that’s enough for Kristin and Kathie. 

Later, they’ll learn that 17 out of every 100 youngsters can’t even enrol in primary school. Then, they may see  that  kids they shared food had little chances for full human lives. But that’ll be long after the wife and I will have passed on.

“Large numbers start dying after they are born”,  says the new report Winning the Numbers, Losing the War. Scrawny stunted kids here are “comparable to the prevalence of underweight children, under 5 year of age, in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In Burundi, Madagascar, and Malawi, poor nutrition stunts about half of the children, says 2010 Global Hunger Index.  Ineffective government, conflict, and political instability interlock.  These spiral into hunger and  high infant mortality.

That’s a stark snapshot for “World Food Day”. Over 150 nations mark, on October 16, their commitment to fill granaries — and failure to do so.

Remember the 1974 World Food Conference?  Then U.S. Secertary of State Henry Kissinger proposed a gung-ho ideal: Food and Agriculture Organization  member-nations should ensure that “within a decade, no child should go to bed hungry”.

It didn’t work out that way.

Bolting food prices, the financial crisis and ecological corrosion saw the number of hungry people breach the one billion threshold last year. ”Don’t trust a hungry man to watch your rice,” a Tibetan proverb cautions.

More Filipinos are hungry now than in 2000. That was when the Philippines and 188 other countries, pledged to meet  Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The eight  Goals set minimum targets that’d  tamp down hunger, keep kids in school, cut down maternal deaths and enlarge freedoms.

MDG Goal 1 committed us to “halve the proportion of people who suffer hunger” by 2015.  How far have we lagged?

About four million  families today  are food-short.  Only four out of every 10 Filipino households get “the recommended energy intake per person,” the last national nutrition survey  reports.  Scrub the technical jargon and that  reads: Almost half of Filipinos don’t get enough to eat.

Social Weather Stations tracked quarterly, since 1998, penury and empty bellies.  Leery of “window dressing”, SWS uses “self-rated hunger” as it’s main gauge. Food lack sweeps away fuzz  that blurred  traditional peso-and-centavo yardsticks

Hunger levels see-sawed, SWS found.  But starting June 2004, these climbed to double digit levels. They’ve never returned to single digit levels . And  malnutrition cuts a deadly swath in the boondocks.

“The poor and excluded,  in 2010, live in rural communities far from Manila,” the report notes. They are the landless, homeless, jobless, underemployed, uneducated, sick, malnourished and  discriminated  against.  Many are women, Muslims and indigenous peoples.

Chipping away at chronic hunger isn’t enough. Three out of 10 kids are undernourished,  Over 26 percent kids, under 5, are underweight. Those stunted crest at 28 percent.  The  highest incidence of  ill-fed kids  cluster in places like Bicol, the Zamboanga Peninsula and Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.

The MDG target on hunger alleviation “is way off track”.  If we’re to catch up, business-as-usual approaches will no longer do.

Studies of 122 developing and transition countries  “show  the window of opportunity for improving nutrition spans from conception to age two.  After age two, the negative effects of undernutrition are largely irreversible,” cautions  the  International Food Policy Research Institute in a World Food Day report.

Child undernutrition could be cut by 25-36 percent , IFPRI adds. But countries must “ make nutrition, especially for young children, a political priority.”.Funnel  where scarce taxes   will do the most good – among pregnant and breastfeeding women and children in their first two years of life. “

President Benigno Aquino worked in larger allocations for education, health and poverty reduction in the proposed 2011 budget.  That is a modest start. “One swallow does not make a summer.” 

Philippine Institute of Development Studies’ Rosario Manasan  estimates  P100.4 billion should beef up allocations for education, health, water and poverty reduction. That didn’t happen when a  President feasted at $20,000 Le Cirque dinners and Tesda spent P66 million for GMA  T-shirts.

NGO coalitions offer  the “Alternative Budget Initiativ”e. These  focus on where the poor are, explains  Leonor Magtolis Briones, convenor of Social Watch Philippines which organized the ABI. Priorty should  go to agriculture and fisheries  women, indigenous peoples and Mindanao.

“I don’t like marshamallows,” Kathie gripes. “Don’t say that,” her sister Kristin snaps. “Many  children  have nothing to eat.”  There is hope. Perhaps, both will come of age when officials    no longer “drink the tears of orphans and play   deaf to the sighs of widows.”

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