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Jonathan Oya has become the face of hunger and child malnutrition in the country. When the Subanen boy died in February of severe malnutrition in the family home in a remote village in Labangan, Zamboanga del Sur, he weighed a mere 15 kilograms — ideal for a 4-year-old. He was 12.
His weakened condition notwithstanding, the fifth grader walked three hours a day to school and back so he would not miss his classes.
It was also at Glab Elementary School where he could get a meal once daily, courtesy of its feeding program. Like most children in impoverished areas, the boy went to school every day on an empty stomach.
The father, farmer Winnie Oya, admits that malnutrition is no stranger to his family, and that it had claimed the life of another son, 10-year-old Bennie, five months before Jonathan was diagnosed with the same malady.
In Jonathan’s school, 26 of the 154 students suffer severe malnutrition as well.
According to the Department of Health’s National Nutrition Council in the region, despite concerted efforts by government and private groups, the Zamboanga Peninsula continues to be among the most challenged in terms of undernutrition, stunting, and specific micronutrient deficiencies, which affect more than one-third of the children in the area.
For all its vaunted economic growth, the Philippines ranks ninth among countries that have the highest rate of stunting in children under 5, according to a study by the interagency Regional Analyst Network and the Action Against Hunger.
Some 3.4 million children were found to be stunted, and over 300,000 were underweight.
Stunting, which can impair physical and mental development, is irreversible after the age of 2.
A World Bank study also found that a 1-percent loss in adult height as a result of childhood stunting is linked with a 1.4-percent loss in economic productivity, resulting in 20 percent less earnings as adults. Stunting is associated with up to 3 percent GDP losses annually, according to the same World Bank study.
It might have been too late for Jonathan Oya, but in Inquirer correspondent Leah D. Agonoy’s report, his death galvanized his community into finding ways to improve their simple meals (for one, vegetables are now added to the staple rice and fish).
And despite the distance of the nearest health center, parents now bring their children for regular checkups. Parents have also learned to cultivate banana and cassava for their children’s snacks, and teachers offer cooking lessons so parents can serve tasty and nutritious food to their brood.
There are similar initiatives that the government and the private sector can do to prevent child malnutrition, starting with school feeding programs that must be maintained especially in remote areas where lack of food is a stark reality.
The “Gulayan sa Paaralan” in public schools must be continued as well, as this could be a steady and accessible source of vegetables.
Also worth emulating are nongovernment organizations such as CheckMySchool, which tapped other groups for a feeding program for the children of the farming community, and the Negrense Volunteers for Change, which began a program to feed 175 children from the village with Mingo Meals, a nutritious mix of rice, mung beans and malunggay.
As well, rural health workers must be trained to introduce reproductive health awareness among couples when they visit far-flung areas like Labangan where, it has been noted, the average number of children in a family exceeds seven (in fact, Jonathan was one of 13 siblings).
With the RH Law in place, the DOH must ensure that the reproductive health needs of couples are adequately met.
It wouldn’t hurt to build more health centers in the region as well. When teachers and school officials decided to take the emaciated Jonathan to a hospital in Pagadian City, the difficult journey took more than eight hours.
The government must also address the poverty in the area by building access roads that would make it easier and cheaper for farmers to take their produce to the market.
And with the Philippines ranking third among the most prone to calamities, there is no excuse for the government not to look into environmental destruction that results in marginalized communities losing what little they have.
Other urgent factors, from land-grabbing and peace and order issues that are pushing the lumad farther into remote areas with compromised food sources, must be addressed.