Roti and Rice examining Imbalances in nutrition for children in the estate sector

Featured image courtesy Amalini De Sayrah

It’s 10:30 am at the Social Institute for the Development of Plantation Sector (SIDPS) pre-school on the Strathspey estate in Maskeliya.

The children, most of them around five years old, queue up – boys first, then girls. The pre-school doesn’t have a toilet, as it’s located next to a chemical store room. Because of this, the Government didn’t give the clearance needed. They have to make do with an open sewer outside.

A student appointed by the class teacher pours water from a bucket, to make sure his classmate’s hands are clean.

Then they open up their lunch-boxes. According to the current mid-day meal programme initiated by the Ministry of Education in 2002, these children are supposed to be provided with food and a glass of milk. But this school hasn’t received funds for the mid-day meal for over a year now - a 2015 World Bank report flagged the need for a National School Feeding Policy which could have helped avoid this.

Many of the students have rice – recommended by the Ministries of Health and Education, collectively, as a healthy alternative to roti

But the teachers point out two students – one of them has roti and a banana for lunch, while another has instant noodles. Both these contravene the recommended nutrition plan tacked up on the school wall.

Roti is often the meal of choice on estates - most of the estate workers Groundviews interviewed said they eat roti for at least one meal. However, schools are now working to shift this mindset, as roti has almost no nutritional value for growing children. Most of the nutrition plans designed by the Government involve rice and a variety of fruit and vegetables. This is an added burden for estate workers who are mothers, as they now have to cook nutritional food for their children as well as work on the estate.

Photo courtesy Amalini De Sayrah

"We're trying to introduce variety into the children's diet," Vice Principal Thiruchelvam of Maymallay Tamil Vidyalaya, off Badulla, said. "We have a meal plan given to us by the Government. So on Monday we might have yellow rice, potatoes, salad leaves, sambal, egg, and tomato. On Tuesday it might be samba rice, vegetables like carrot, fish or sprats. On Wednesday it might be kadala (chickpeas) and fruit. Thursday is string-hoppers, dhal, egg and fruit. Friday the children can bring idly or thosai. We rotate the options around every other week."

"If we make roti, it's an additional burden for us as we have to make extra rice for the children for school. So usually I make rice or idly. Then it's easy," says Ramiah Sita, an estate worker in Spring Valley.

"Often, it costs over Rs. 10,000 for a month for groceries. That's Rs. 1,000 a week, for rice and vegetables. For meat and fish, it costs even more. Before, we could manage from our salary. Now, because we need to have savings, we often partially pay the bill, and promise to pay the balance next month. The shop gives us groceries on trust." In 2011, UNICEF noted as much as 70% of an estate worker's wages went to food alone.

Green peppercorns drying at a neighbour's house - Spring Valley

Even for those schools which do have assistance from the Government, parents often struggle to provide their children with nutritious food. A school in Maskeliya gets assistance from the Government in the form of vouchers, which can be exchanged for food. Yet this is usually for nominal amounts - sometimes as little as Rs. 28 per child. Eggs can cost Rs. 20 each - so some families won't be able to give their children much else for lunch. A 2015 survey by the Centre for Policy Alternatives found that 27.6% of the Malaiyaha Tamil community (or Upcountry Tamils) had been forced to compromise on the quality of their meals, while 18.4% had to cut back on meals due to their low wages.

"These nutrition charts can only be implemented in the first two weeks. After that, it's impossible. Some of the students only bring biscuits in the last week of the month," teachers from the school said. What is colloquially known as the "choon paan culture" has also come to the estates - with many choosing to buy ready-made short-eats or bakery items such as fish buns for meals, according to the Community Development Services for Plantations (CODESEP) in Deniyaya.

Snacks at a shop in Maskeliya. Families are increasingly turning to ready-made food as a quick alternative.

Low Birth Weight is more prevalent among the estate sector than anywhere else in the country, attributable to a calorie intake of less than 2200, having 8 or less hours of sleep, standing for more than 2.5 hours per day in the second or third trimesters and a low Body Mass Index (BMI). Children born on estates are also three times as likely to be stunted, and two times more likely to be underweight compared to the urban sector. Over 50% of elderly people were also found to be malnourished. There was also evidence of age and gender-based calorie allocation.

SIDPS pre school - chart showing student's weights.

Research conducted by the University of Peradeniya in 2013 also showed that malnutrition can lead to low educational performance for primary schoolchildren, including in subjects like Tamil and Mathematics, and could affect their quality of life in the long term. Mothers living and working on estates try their best to give their children nutritious food, even though they often cannot afford it. Once the financial pressure becomes too much, a few children drop out of school, particularly past Grade 10 - choosing instead to search for work on the estate or in Colombo.

Even after 150 years of tea plantation management, something as basic as a healthy, regular meal – which so many of us take for granted - continues to be a daily struggle for many estate workers and their families. This puts the entire community at the risk of illness – starting with children – and impacts on their education and overall quality of life. Addressing this imbalance remains an urgent priority.

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