Q&A: Encouraging the availability of healthy and diverse foods for students

Creating change often starts from the ground up. IIED talks to a teacher in East Java province, Indonesia, about how she is working with parents and pupils to learn about healthy food choices.

Article, 29 October 2019

Head and shoulders photo of Siti LatifahSiti Latifah (SL) used to feel proud that she could buy her children snacks and instant foods, but she came to realise that this wasn’t healthy and it was her responsibility to teach them good eating habits.

Now, as a teacher at Roudlotul Atal Nuruzzaman, an Islamic-based kindergarten in Jember District, of the East Java province in Indonesia, she has pioneered the development of a healthy canteen that provides nutritious snacks for children and encourages them to develop healthy food consumption patterns from an early age. This concept of a healthy canteen is creating a push for healthy eating within the community and is expected to become a model for other schools in the district.

How does the healthy canteen get children to eat healthy?

SL: Children love to eat chiki-chiki (snacks) and unhealthy instant foods because they taste savoury and it makes them feel rich. I started the healthy canteen as a way to teach children to live healthily. In my opinion, healthy food is food without flavouring agents or unnatural food colouring.

Cilok (fried dough) is one of the children’s favourite things to eat. We make a version that is healthier than the cilok you buy on the street. We reduce the use of regular flour, using tapioca and rice flour instead. We also put vegetables in our cilok – carrots and spinach that we pick from around the school. And we make the sauce by ourselves. For example, right now tomatoes are cheap, so the mothers brought them and we turned them into a sauce.

A woman cooks in front of a group of children clamouring for food

In the beginning it was difficult for the children to accept the healthy canteen because they thought the canteen’s food was not as delicious as manufactured snacks or their mother’s cooking. Plus, our traditional snacks are packed with leaves, or use plates, while the ones from the factory use a very nice packaging and children prefer that.

The children were asking their mothers for flavouring agents to add to their food because they didn't like it, and the mothers were bringing it. After six months, one semester, they finally adapted to the taste.

Why is it important to also educate mothers and fathers?

SL: Promoting healthy food to children is not effective if it’s not also promoted to the parents. When we found out that the mothers were bringing flavouring agents, we supported the mothers to also train the children to live healthily by slowly encouraging them to participate in events on healthy food. That’s why I established ‘Mother’s School’ with various themes. For example, right now we are discussing balanced nutrition – how we can serve healthy food at home so that our families can be healthy. I teach mothers how to use natural food colouring, using pandan leaves for green colouring and dragon fruit for red.

The challenge is when mothers finally change their households’ diets. They stop using preservatives or food colouring in their own kitchens, and then their husbands see it as a problem. They don’t like their wives changing their ways of cooking because it doesn’t taste as good to them as before. That is why now my husband also established 'Father’s School’, to educate the husbands on healthy food.

Siti Latifah’s story, and the lives of other individuals championing healthy food in Indonesia, are charted in the ‘Healthy Generations Ahead’ film, produced by Hivos and IIED, in collaboration with BrandOutLoud, for the SD4All programme.

The healthy canteen programme has not reached 100% awareness among mothers, but at least when I look at their cooking, 40% of them are making their kids healthy lunchboxes. Even though it’s not yet 100% of the mothers, I am grateful, because they are starting to change in just a short time. Now, the canteen is taken care of by mothers who have been trained on healthy food.

How else can we start a healthy food movement in Indonesia?

SL: In Mother’s School, we have a saying: “My child, your child, our child”. We must not only care about our own family. We also need to think about our community. Why? Because if our children eat healthily but our neighbours do not, then when they play, our children will follow their example. We have to share our knowledge.

I understand the importance of healthy food from attending events run by [partner organisation] Tanoker, especially Pasar Lumpur (mud market) where I take the children and the mothers. We find many different kinds of food at Pasar Lumpur and that is why I like to go there. Mothers in my village usually cook moringa leaves or fried fish from the sea, but you don’t always have to fry the fish. You can see many ways of cooking fish at Pasar Lumpur. It makes mothers here get acquainted with mothers from other regions who also cook different things.

A cook serves food to a group of children

If we use these kinds of events to strengthen the grassroots, such as villages, then sub-district, then automatically the whole of Indonesia will be healthy, too. But if you don’t start from the grassroots then it will not be sustainable.

My hope is that the government will also promote healthy food. Would you bring my voice to the government to make them care about healthy food?

Tanoker (in Bahasa only), Hivos and IIED’s Sustainable Diets for All (SD4All) work in Jember regency has provided Siti Latifah with support on healthy food issues since 2017. The healthy canteen she started is a way of providing healthy food to schoolchildren that can be replicated and used to make healthy food consumption a more dominant trend.

The school’s way of working is expected to become a model for the development of healthy canteens in other schools with policy support from the Ministry of Religion of Jember District.

This interview was taken from the transcripts of the ‘Healthy Generations Ahead’ film. Watch the video to learn more about Latifah’s story and the lives of other individuals championing healthy food in Indonesia.