By Jason Gutierrez
MANILA, January 16, 2011 (AFP) – The Philippines is transforming primary school yards into vegetable gardens in a bid to fight US-inspired junk food addictions that are causing an explosion of health problems throughout society.
At one of the showcase schools in Manila for the burgeoning health food project, teachers and students are joined by parents in tending lush plots that have an assortment of vegetables.
Every available space is used to grow nutritious greens that are harvested in cycles – as free food for the school’s mostly poor students or sold as part of a livelihood project for their families.
Where there is no soil, portable hydroponic gardening is promoted using discarded plastic bottles as water receptacles for plants that hang symmetrically in rows.
“It’s amazing what many things you can do with a little innovation, and a little bit of imagination,” Paranaque Central Elementary School principal Edita Baggayan, 65, told AFP while inspecting some tomatoes in a mini-greenhouse.
“Children here are taught proper nutrition, and we involve parents in the project because we want to take families away from a lifestyle of eating junk foods.”
Nearby, boys in khaki trousers are busy removing weeds and watering the upcoming harvest of thick green okras, eggplants and moringa leaves.
There is a row of cabbages, vines with budding luffa fruits and winter melons that are typically used in a variety of traditional Filipino dishes that are fast vanishing from dining tables in favour of take out and instant foods.
Broccoli and cauliflower were last season’s harvests, but they will be grown again in the second semester, Baggayan said.
During AFP’s visit, students hungrily tucked into their chicken-vegetable soup at lunchtime, with some going back for second servings.
School nutritionist and cook Dulce Aranda said the programme was having measurable impacts.
She said 100 of the most undernourished children among the roughly 3,000 students were picked for a feeding program using the harvested vegetables when the initiative was launched last year.
“Our charts now show they are more healthy, attentive and are performing better in school,” Aranda said.
“We just hope they will carry this through when they grow up. There are just too many people who are unhealthy,” Aranda said.
Fast-food outlets are perhaps even more ubiquitous in the Philippines than in the United States, which ruled the Southeast Asian nation as a colonial power for nearly 50 years from 1898.
The Philippines has a wildly popular home-grown fast-food chain that has outlets even in remote towns, while the famous US brands are also widespread.
In homes, rice remains a staple for most meals but accompanying dishes are typically fried and heavy in oil.
As a result, lifestyle diseases such as hypertension and diabetes are ravaging the adult population, especially people aged in their 20s to 40s, leading to a bonanza for pharmaceutical firms.
“Everything now is fast or processed food,” said doctor Carmela Pagunsan, medical director at the Manila unit of French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Aventis.
“We have bad eating diets and sedentary lifestyles. Parents and their children don’t go out and do physical activity anymore, don’t eat vegetables and fruits.
“If you go to the malls now, you will see many overweight children and young adults. They have not been trained to be fit, to have proper diets.”
She said the problem was also cultural in nature, with Filipinos having a propensity to over indulge in salty, fatty and very sweet foods, particularly during festivals and celebrations.
The government’s National Nutrition Survey in 2009 showed that 27 percent of adults were overweight, while 25 percent reported having hypertension.
“That is a gross under-estimation in my view,” Pagunsan said. “Because there are many more people out there who don’t know they are hypertensive, who don’t get the medicines they need and who don’t see a doctor for consultation.
“And because they go undiagnosed, they do not have any compulsion to control their lifestyles, not knowing that complications are already setting in.”
She said her company alone marketed five anti-hypertension medicines locally, while also selling oral medication and insulin injections for diabetes.
“The hypertension market is still growing,” Pagunsan said, adding that the number of applications for patents covering generic hypertensive drugs in the Philippines was on the rise.
The education department launched the vegetable project last year, and it hopes to replicate the success of the Paranaque school and others in Manila nationwide to produce a new generation of health conscious Filipinos.
Pagunsan said the vegetable project was commendable, but noted it may take a lot more to change the Filipinos’ mindset.
“The public’s awareness of the problem is in the spectrum of between low and medium. They are generally aware, but they don’t do something about it,” she said.