SERANG, Indonesia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It was a simple lunch: fried noodles, a piece of fried chicken and a banana. But for Safira, an elfin 11-year-old, this meal is a luxury. Provided free by her school, it’s also the first and only meal she will have for the rest of the day.
The daughter of a factory employee and a day laborer who travels hours each day to find work, there is little money to cook meals at home. Dinner is usually a banana or two. When the school does not provide lunch, Safira goes hungry.
“On days without school meals I don’t bring anything from home. Then, I don’t eat,” she said, picking delicately at the chicken with freshly washed hands.
“When I’m very hungry, I can’t concentrate on what the teacher is saying,” she added. “The food at school is delicious - I usually eat fried rice at home.”
Her small primary school in the city of Serang, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) west of the Indonesian capital Jakarta, provides three out of six lunches every week.
The menu is a carefully considered mix of carbohydrates, proteins, fiber and vitamins. The ingredients are sourced from local farmers, and groups of mothers whose children study at the school take turns to prepare the meals.
The school meal program, funded by the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) and global commodities trader Cargill Inc, is part of a larger effort by the Indonesian authorities and aid agencies to tackle widespread malnutrition that affects millions of children, stunting their growth and hobbling their potential.
In Indonesia, one in three children between the ages of six and 14 do not eat enough nutritious food, the WFP says.
The situation is worst in eastern areas where the weather is drier, and there is chronic poverty and low development.
The problem has significant implications for the archipelago’s future economic growth and resilience, as well as its health needs, experts say.
“Economic losses due to stunting and malnutrition are estimated to be 2 to 3 percent of Indonesia’s GDP,” said Martha Bowen, deputy country director in Indonesia for the U.S. government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which runs a $134 million project to reduce stunting in Indonesia.
According to government data, about 37 percent of all Indonesian children under five were stunted in 2013, up from 35.6 percent in 2010. This translates to over 9.5 million stunted children, the fifth highest national figure globally, the WFP says.
Stunting is caused by long-term under-nutrition, combined with sanitation and hygiene problems. It hinders children’s cognitive growth and economic potential, experts say.
Stunted children, who are shorter than average height, generally complete fewer years of schooling and earn less income as adults. The effects are largely irreversible.
Government research also found that more than a quarter of Indonesian children aged from five to 14 were anemic in 2013. Usually caused by deficiencies of iron and vitamins in the diet, anemia affects children’s cognitive and physical development.
A WFP study comparing schools with the meal program and those without revealed higher attendance rates at the former, said Anthea Webb, the agency’s director in Indonesia.
“Kids were skipping school a lot less, anemia rates went down - which means the kids had more energy and were more focused - and their hygiene habits also improved because... we also teach them how to wash their hands and brush their teeth,” she said.
Yet for a long time, Indonesians did not realize malnutrition was a problem unless it led to severe wasting, when children are very underweight, experts say.
It was only in the 2009-2014 National Medium-Term Development Plan that the government identified stunting as an issue to be addressed, said the MCC’s Bowen.
At that time, there was no word in the Bahasa Indonesia language for the phenomenon except “pendek” (meaning simply “short”) used alongside the English term “stunting”, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
An MCC-funded campaign, in partnership with the health ministry, has been working to popularize a new Indonesian word - “stanting”.
Limited breastfeeding, a diet high in carbohydrates and low in proteins and vitamins, and increased consumption of processed foods contribute to the problem, experts say.
There are also worries climate change could make extreme weather more frequent, leading to more volatile food prices and putting nutritious food out of reach for poor households.
Indonesia already has some of the highest food prices in Southeast Asia due to trade restrictions on food imports and other government policies, another factor in its high rates of stunting, according to the World Bank.
More than 28 million Indonesians, just over a tenth of the population, live below the national poverty line of around $27 per month, while nearly 40 percent live just above it.
Indonesia also faces a “double burden” of malnutrition, where under-nutrition and obesity co-exist.
A 2015 World Bank report warned that more and more Indonesians - both adults and young children, and across all income levels - are becoming overweight, and urged steps to mitigate related health risks such as non-communicable diseases.
As Southeast Asia’s largest economy and a member of the G20 nations, Indonesia is increasingly leading the drive to tackle these issues instead of relying on donors, aid agencies say.
The WFP, for example, no longer distributes food in Indonesia but provides technical help to the government instead.
It helped design, develop and monitor the school meals program, which now covers 100,000 children across five provinces, in response to a government request in 2015.
The MCC, meanwhile, supports health centers where pregnant women and children receive vaccinations, nutrition supplements and counseling.
Tackling stunting takes a generation, longer than most governments last, so it requires widespread buy-in, said the WFP’s Webb.
“It’s a really good proxy for how your entire economy and society is developed,” she said.
“Each centimeter grown is another few points of IQ and the strength and ability to work really hard and smart.”
Reporting by Thin Lei Win, editing by Megan Rowling; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org