Today in Malaysia, a healthy choice of food is way beyond the reach of most, low-income households and even many in the middle class.
The deteriorating state of the people’s health and wellness do not appear to get the same traction as political issues touching on race and religion.
Obesity and its related problems – heart disease, diabetes and organ failure – must be tackled urgently. It is time issues about food become a national concern if we are to see a turnaround.
Yet, doctors who have spoken up and who are in support of Economics Minister Rafizi Ramli’s assessment of the deteriorating health and wellness of the people deserve some national attention.
I have often written about matters relating to food science knowledge, eating habits and even questionable bistro food outlets. So, it was a great relief to hear a minister like Rafizi addressing the problem squarely.
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In the quest to make quick profits, large firms have marketed fast foods for decades. Even political parties – through their business tentacles – ventured into fast-food chains. These chains eventually flooded the entire nation.
And so, many were tempted by fast food and an array of unhealthy hawker dishes – and this has become part of the present-day lifestyle for many people.
We need more than policies and campaigns to defuse this time bomb. It has become a serious liability to our healthcare services, as expenditure on healthcare rises.
First, we need to re-map our food business. It’s time to review the way we license and monitor food importers, manufacturers and the repackaging industries. We have allowed glossy, arty, attractive packaging to cover up food that is either bad or has little or no health benefit.
Let’s educate the people about healthy food choices. We need to go beyond the inspections of the cleanliness of premises. We have to raise awareness of the nutritional value of the food we consume.
Let’s encourage and instil among the public the value of home-cooked food – although granted, many in the urban areas do not seem to have much time or energy left to cook after work.
Couples have to work long hours to make ends meet. They spend several hours getting to and from work. This has entrenched a culture of eating out, more out of necessity and convenience.
More nutritious meals, usually served in upmarket restaurants, come with pricey bills. These are well beyond the means of most people.
However, households could opt for creative options and solutions and make cooking a valuable family activity. These occasions could create opportunities for children to learn about healthy food choices. Besides teaching children the craft of cooking, this activity would turn mould them into more wholesome, resourceful and independent adults later in life.
Supermarkets and fresh markets could play a role by selling cleaned and cut prepacked fresh food packages, with cooking condiments included. These meals need only be put together at home over the cooker or the oven.
That said, we need to accept that eating healthily is more expensive. An option for low-income families who are unable to afford nutritious food is to grow their own vegetables. But then again, the reality is that many low-income households little time to cook their own meals, let alone grow their own food.
The other impediment which many do not see is the housing industry, which interestingly, has also become an environmental issue.
Land today comes at a premium and so we build multi-storeyed flats and condominiums with just enough space for people to park their cars. So, where will the allocation of garden plots be in such homes for people to grow their own vegetables?
Vested interests have overdeveloped limited townships. They have capitalised on such overdevelopment (greedy ventures really) by inflating land prices to rake in obscene profits.
And then we proudly proclaim our track record as a “fast-developing nation”.
It is not as if there isn’t enough land for farming and food security. In reality, there appears to be more than enough land for developers – just look at the glut of high-end homes – and the miners! Many virgin reserves and forests are have raped for logging and plantation firms and developers’ profits with little impunity.
So who gains and who loses from these policies over land use and development?
Despite having nature’s best gifts of weather and soil fertility, many in Malaysia languish with mounting food and medical bills.
Today, many of our children – and even adults – have no knowledge of food science. Why, even daily exercise is a luxury for many.
It is time to resolve these problems and forge ahead creatively, resourcefully and sustainably. But are we united and willing to go the distance?
I don’t’ think so. We are a failing population even in comparison with some poorer nations not too far away. We cash in on crops – by exporting the best bananas, for instance, while locals make do with low-quality varieties. Check out the quality of papayas overseas, and you will get the drift.
When I was in London, I found and bought the best petai (bitter beans) from Malaysian jungles. I have yet to find these in local markets in Malaysia.
Sad is not the word. Greed, failure and ignorance have burdened us.