For the past two years, Horizon Primary School has been taking part in the Healthy Meals in Schools Programme (HMSP), a collaborative effort between the Ministry of Education and the Health Promotion Board. Under this programme, canteen vendors follow strict criteria to ensure they serve well-balanced meals consisting of food from the four major food groups. This includes brown rice and wholemeal bread, meat and other proteins, fruit and vegetables.

No gravy will be served unless the student asks for some and even then, they will not get more than two spoonfuls. Deep fried foods have also been removed from the menu. The aim of this programme is to introduce the idea of healthy eating to students at a young age so that it becomes a habit early in life.

Early Education on Eating

Left to right: Hema Veerakumar and Jasmine Ang Pei Chi

This positive leap towards healthy eating has been embraced by both students and parents. Hema Veerakumar is mum to Ashlyn Shivani, a Primary 2 student at the school. She says she was glad to find out about the programme through the school newsletter. “I’m a working mum so I can’t pack food for my daughter all the time. It was a relief to know that she will get proper meals in school. I definitely think it’s a good idea.”

Ang Pei Chi, Jasmine agrees. The meals in schools are more complete and comprehensive, says the mother of two. “My son who is in Primary 5 gets all the nutrients in a set meal. In the past, he would have to queue at a different stall if he wanted to get fruits to complete his meal.”

One of the big changes that Ms Veerakumar has witnessed in her daughter is that Ashlyn has cut down on processed foods. She credits the school’s regular talks on nutrition as part of HMSP for this encouraging development. “The teacher had shared about the ingredients that go into processed foods, so that was eye-opening for the students,” she says.

Ms Chi adds: “My daughter, who is in Primary 2, is quite a picky eater. When the school started the HMSP, she had requested for me to make her meals as she didn’t want to buy the food from the canteen. She used to only eat plain rice and noodles, and would push away the rice mixed with wholegrains. But she has warmed up to it because her friends eat it. So I think having friends who eat the same thing helps.”

Ms Veerakumar now works hard to make sure the healthy eating message taught at school is reinforced at home. “I make it a point to cook with less salt,” she shares. “I also use less oil and I grill more. I believe that this habit, once cultivated from young, will continue when they grow up. That’s the message that the school has been giving as well.”

Happily, daughter Ashlyn has been receptive to the changes. “[Ashlyn] would ask me, ‘Mummy, what’s for dinner? What’s the portion for veggie today?’ Last month at the supermarket I couldn’t decide what to buy and she said, ‘Mummy, choose the one with the Healthier Choice logo.’ Her teacher had shared with them that they should be looking for this when shopping,” Ms Veerakumar adds.

Children Begin Healthy Eating Habits

Left to right: Maegan Chew and Jorah Leaw Zi Yuan

Another person who has willingly embraced this change in menu is Primary 5 student, Maegan Chew. “I don’t find it difficult because I like the taste of fruit and vegetables. I’ve always tried to eat a balanced diet,” says the 11-year-old, who also admits that she’s not a fan of fried food.

In fact, the student leader even takes it upon herself to help her friends get comfortable with the idea of eating a more balanced meal. “I encourage them to eat fruit and vegetables and I tell them that we shouldn’t waste food.”

Maegan is also aware that eating healthy will lead to better health, another reason she is glad she can get her fill of nutritious meals both at home and in school. “When I eat a balanced diet, I can grow and my bones will be strong. When I’m older, I won’t have weak bones or any diseases because I eat healthy when I’m young and this habit will stay with me until I’m old,” she adds.

Not all students find the change palatable, however. Jorah Leaw Zi Yuan says he enjoys the occasional deep-fried foods when he eats out with his family. The 10-year-old thinks it is acceptable to eat different types of foods in moderation — something he had learnt in school. However, the sporty child who is active in football, wushu, taekwondo and swimming, understands eating healthy foods will provide him with the energy to excel in sports.

He is also glad that he gets a complete meal for $1.50 with the HMSP. The costs add up in the previous system of ala carte ordering, and students may end up paying more for a meal with fruits, vegetables, protein and carbohydrates. Having wholegrains also means he stays full for longer. The soft-spoken boy says he used to get hungry between three and four hours after his meal but he doesn’t get hunger pangs any longer.

Teaching Staff Sees Benefits

Senior teacher for Physical Education (PE) Hong Bee Yuen is supportive of the HMSP system. Her daughter and son are in Primary 4 and Primary 6 at Horizon Primary School respectively. Mdm Hong used to buy buns for them when they were younger but realised that buns are neither cheap nor nutritious. “I’m glad my children can get a complete and nutritious meal at school at a reasonable cost,” says Mdm Hong.

Personally, Mdm Hong has seen the HMSP benefits for the teaching staff. Even as teachers check on the students during meal times, the school encourages staff to be a positive role model by consuming HMSP meals in schools. As a vegetarian, Mdm Hong says the change to HMSP has been significant. In the past, she would have to get her daily intake of fruits separately from another stall, now it comes with her set meal. The canteen vendors have also given her, as well as a couple of other vegetarian teachers, specialised meals for their diets.

“One of the challenges the programme faces is wastage,” says Mdm Hong. “Some students, as well as staff do not eat every item set in the meal. The solution lies in advocating teachers to be role models. The school also encourages parents to be good role models at home. If the children see and learn from the people they learn from, it will be ingrained in their culture and be habit-forming,” says Mdm Hong.

Principal Mrs. Grace Leong is also an advocate of mindset change. “We are in this mindset-changing business. When you have a programme like HMSP, it requires the active and enthusiastic participation of many different stakeholders.”

“For example, parents wrote into me about the type of vegetables our vendors should sell while the vendors explained in response that there are certain constraints in using those recommended vegetables, such as a shorter shelf life. You’ll find that when you’re in this programme, you certainly have to find the right balance.”

The school plays its part by monitoring the programme very closely. For example, new vendors may ask the students if they want fruits instead of just giving it to them as a way to mitigate wastage. “When we have new vendors, we ensure that there is a variety of fruits served and they meet the guidelines in terms of storage, management of fruits and their serving portion,” says Mrs Leong.

The school also advocates a holistic change in mindset. Besides healthy eating, the school places a heavy emphasis on healthy living. Every Wednesday, the students arrive at 7.40am and joins in a 15-minute school-wide exercise programme Jump Jam before the Flag-Raising Ceremony. Teachers dress in their sportswear and participate in the programme with the students.

“You can’t depend solely on one programme to emphasise or change mindset. There must be a holistic package to call for a wholesome change,” says Mrs. Leong.

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