“Kumakalam ang tiyan,” “mahapdi ang sikmura,” and “namumuti ang mata sa gutom” are all expressions pertaining to hunger. That there are so many of them in Filipino indicates how prevalent hunger is among Filipinos. Meanwhile, the most commonly eaten food today – noodles and streetfoods such as isaw (grilled chicken intestine) – are not enough to answer the people’s nutritional needs.
By DABET CASTAÑEDA
Grade three pupil Benjie Alvarez, 10, was sitting at the front row of his class when I first saw him. He looked pale and sleepy, his frail body carelessly slouched on the chair. When his teacher called him to be excused from class to accommodate this interview, he stood up and walked slowly to the end of the room. He was extremely shy and every word he uttered was in whisper.
His height – slightly below four feet – might be mistaken for an eight-year old’s. He lives in a place called Chorillo, an urban poor community a kilometer away from his school, the Barangka Elementary School (BES) in the city of Marikina. He walks everyday to school, rain or shine, because his father, a taxi driver, could not afford to give him the P4 needed for a tricycle ride. His mother is unemployed.
He would not answer when asked why he seemed so lethargic. Later, he admitted not having eaten anything for breakfast but said he did eat some rice and fish for lunch. For snack, he buys a small serving of porridge for P3 and two packs of chips that cost P1 each (The packs have more air in them than chips while the watery porridge has nothing to give it any sort of nutrition or taste).
Benjie’s teacher, Mrs. Dig, said the highest grade Benjie received in the first quarter of the school year was 74, a point short of passing grade. She believes that Benjie’s poor performance in school is primarily because of his poor diet.
Bulatlat research shows Benjie is not alone in his predicament.
Ladita Chavez, 61, has been teaching elementary students for 40 years. She presently handles the lowest section in grade six in the same school where Benjie studies.
Her long experience as a public school teacher has taught her that most of the students in the lower sections who perform very poorly in class normally come from low-income families. She narrated how 70 percent of her students come to in school with empty stomachs. She said the students would vomit and experience dizziness just before the first subject. When asked, the reply is consistent: they are hungry.
“The nutritional status of the students to a large extent determines their performance in school,” Chavez said.
Researches by other agencies show Chavez’s words contain painful truths.
One of the Social Weather Station (SWS) surveys that perhaps stirred the most reaction was its study that showed 15.1 percent of Filipinos nationwide have experienced hunger, covering the period of July to September this year.
It should not be taken to mean however that the food crisis emerged only today. In fact, in 1998, a nationwide research by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) under the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) showed that eight out of 10 Filipino households were food insecure.
FNRI Chief Science Research Specialist Maria Regina Pedro, Ph.D., explained that in their research, food insecurity would mean that household heads had doubts whether they would have something to eat in the next mealtime but, as a disclaimer, she said, “this did not necessarily mean they went hungry.”
Pedro said food insecurity translates to malnutrition that comes in two forms: the marasmic type (severe undernourishment) or the kwashiorkor.
According to her, the undernourishment could be determined from a person’s weight for age, weight for height or height for age. If a person’s weight were low for his age or height, this would indicate that the person might be thin due to reduction of food intake or illness and/or infection.
Pedro said being underweight would determine a person’s present nutritional status. In its 2003 study, the FNRI recorded that 27.6 percent of children 0 to 5 years old were underweight for age and 5.5 percent underweight for height.
A person’s height for age, however, reflects long-term malnutrition. More commonly known as stunting, Pedro said that this may impact on the person’s mental development. The FNRI research showed that in 2003, 30.4 percent of children in the same age bracket were under height for age.
Pedro said that in both researches, statistics show that undernourishment and stunting are more prevalent in the low-income strata. This would mean that persons belonging to this social stratum have inadequate food and are more prone to illness and infections.
If this is the case, people who are malnourished and sickly become less productive to the society, Pedro explained.
She further said FNRI researches prove that malnourished school children perform poorly in school. It is the same with malnourished laborers and employees who also perform poorly in their line of work.