Nov 14 was a significant date in Malaysia for two interlinked reasons.
Firstly, it was World Diabetes Day. Malaysia has the highest incidence of diabetes in South East Asia, which has now become a major public health concern. Over 20% of adults above 30 have type 2 diabetes, which affects 2.8 million people. This figure will only increase, unless we can come up with some robust strategies to reverse the trend.
The high number is caused by different factors, but poverty is one of the key indicators.
In previous generations, people living in rural areas did not earn high incomes but the incidence of diabetes was far lower.
This brings me to the second event that happened on Nov 14 – The Lost Food Project launched their second PPR Feeding Programme in the low cost flats in Lembah Pantai, Kuala Lumpur.
Federal Territories Minister Khalid Abdul Samad launched the weekly programme alongside Lembah Pantai MP Fahmi Fadzil.
During the launch, over 8,200kg of food (over 26,000 meals) were rescued and distributed to 850 families.
This feeding initiative is targeted at the urban poor. A report commissioned by Unicef earlier this year highlighted the conditions many children living in Kuala Lumpur’s low cost housing have to endure. The study finds that about 15% of children below the age of five living in the low cost flats surveyed have stunted growth and 22% are underweight. Another 23% are either overweight or obese, (which is six times higher compared with the Kuala Lumpur average of 4%)
Many of us might associate diabetes with over-eating and gluttony – an affliction of the richest members of our society. However, this is not always the case.
People living on a limited budget cannot afford to acquire all the food needed for a balanced diet. Often the cheapest foods are largely composed of starchy carbohydrates, like rice or noodles.
They are very filling but offer little nutritional value. The body gets used to high levels of glucose and children prefer eating unhealthy snacks rather than nutritious alternatives.
Buying foods high in protein and vitamins can prove to be too expensive for many families. Of course, every so often a family will have a treat – but a takeaway or fast food will likely increase our level of glucose and fatty deposits, which is one of the main contributing factors to diabetes, along with genetics and physical inactivity.
If we really want to reduce the incidence of diabetes in the poorest communities, we do have to address many issues.
Firstly, we need to enable people to eat nutritious food. The food programme just launched in PPR Lembah Pantai is a good example of sustainability and nutrition working hand in hand.
The food that have the shortest shelf life (so generates the highest level of surplus) are fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, meat and other proteins.
In comparison, grocery products have a longer shelf life. The Lost Food Project recently announced they have distributed over two million meals in two years. So food banks can be an amazing source of nutrition.
Recent figures showed that over 85% of food rescued by The Lost Food Project were fresh fruit and vegetables.
If they were not rescued by charities like The Lost Food Project and other NGOs, it would simply go to landfill which is expensive to the public purse, and the landfill gases create an environmental hazard.
Of course, giving PPR households fruit and vegetables is not a one-stop panacea.
We also to provide education on nutrition and a lot of other support to these communities.
Beneficiaries from the first PPR feeding programme in Gombak, Kuala Lumpur, has reported monthly savings of up to 50% on their food budget.
Their diet is not only healthier, but the money saved could be used for other essential needs such as education, clothes and healthcare.
This is why it is very appropriate that the PPR launch and World Diabetes Day fell on the same day.
Love Food Hate Waste is a monthly Star2 column in collaboration with Suzanne Mooney, founder of The Lost Food Project, the first food bank in Malaysia to have professional contracts with various supermarkets, manufacturers and wholesale markets. It distributes 50,000 meals to over 40 charities every month, while composting any donated food unfit for human consumption. Read more about the programme here: Are food banks a curse on sustainability? Or email Mooney at TLFPcomp@gmail.com.