Anti-junk food crusader toils on

03 Feb 2014 / 20:00 H.

    HE IS probably the only Malaysian who has visited as many as 4,000 of the 10,000 schools across the country.
    It's safe to say that not even all the top bosses of the Education Department and education ministers combined in all these years have been to that many schools, including in the remote parts of Sabah and Sarawak.
    This man has done it all in the 37 years of being president of the Association of School Canteen Operators of Malaysia (Ascom) in his personal crusade to discourage pupils from eating "junk food" at school canteens.
    Meet William Huee Thing Hoa, who has conducted more than 1,300 roadshows in schools and universities which he estimated were attended by over one million students.
    He takes it upon himself to educate schoolchildren, especially the young ones in primary schools about consuming healthy food and drinks but admits that there are far too many schools where junk food is easily available.
    "If it's not available at canteens, the hawkers outside the school compound will bring it to the students. In fact, schools are dumping grounds for junk food. And this is a very sad state of affairs that's been allowed to prevail without anything being done about it," he told me.
    What is junk food?
    "You will find all sorts of snack items of low or no quality, sometimes with no manufacturer's name on the label, containing things like monosodium glutamate (MSG), high sugar content and banned preservatives being sold rampantly," he said.
    To add to this, many of these items are expired products.
    The biggest culprit in the list of junk food at school canteens is what is commonly known as "Malaysia ice cream".
    It's the cheapest ice cream in the market and is mainly sold by hawkers outside school premises during recess, priced at 10-20 sen each. It's just sweet, coloured ice in a plastic wrapper and is very popular.
    "This ice cream is unhealthy. It's made of unboiled water mixed with colouring material and with a very high sugar content. Can you imagine our children as early as in Primary 1 or 2, taking this ice cream almost daily?
    "Our schoolchildren with such eating habits will grow up into unhealthy adults with all sorts of health problems. You can see why all our hospitals are congested," Huee said.
    Carbonated drinks with high sugar content are another problem.
    He spoke of scary official statistics that show Malaysia having the fourth largest number of people suffering from diabetes in Asia with 800,000 in 2007 and tripling to 2.6 million or 15% of the population.
    "What kind of society does the country want to create by 2020 when we are supposed to be a developed nation? If you ask me, at the rate we are going, Malaysia will be full of sick people which no number of hospitals can accommodate," he said.
    Huee said Ascom had written to practically all the education ministers over the years to highlight the problem but "nothing seems to be done about it".
    He said: "The headmasters we spoke to said they cannot prevent hawkers from selling junk food because it's the hawkers' livelihood."
    Huee said although he had managed to spread his anti-junk food message to many schools and pupils, there is so much more that he could do given so many other factors influencing the eating habits of the population including the pupils.
    As for canteen operators, he said Ascom had sent out as many as 8,000 letters to schools for their canteen operators to become members but just a couple of hundreds responded to become members because such operators are a fragmented lot as most are not long-term operators.
    Out of the 10,000 schools, only about 7,000 have canteens and the rest do not have canteens because of the small number of pupils, including some with only 50 pupils.
    Some of the problems besetting canteen operators include schools which insist on high monthly rentals against the backdrop of our schools having too many holidays.
    "In each year, there are only 192 days of schooling. The rest are all holidays including the public holidays and yet school authorities are charging rental for 11 months in a year. Schools should regard canteens as a service to them and at the most charge only token rental," he said.
    Asked about the condition of canteens in rural schools, especially in Sabah and Sarawak, Huee said that they are really "pitiful to see as they are truly the dumping ground for junk food".
    What did he get from all his years of voluntary service as Ascom president?
    The indefatigable Huee said he didn't expect any reward other than to create awareness in schools to improve the conditions of canteens and to spread his anti-junk food mission.
    He said he has indicated his intention to retire from Ascom but no one is willing to take over and so he's just biding his time.
    "My family, while giving me the support, thinks I'm crazy to be doing all this for so long. But I'll continue as long as I can," said this truly unsung hero.
    Azman Ujang is a former editor-in-chief of Bernama. Comments:

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