What are our children eating (or not eating)?

Chips. Crackers. Candy.  Anyone walking through one of the six neighborhoods or refugee camps TYO serves is bound to see children eating these packaged goods in the streets.  A few months ago in this blog post, we discussed the prevalent rates of food insecurity and hunger among the children who come to TYO daily. But how does food insecurity translate into eating options?  What kinds of food and meals do the children and women who come to TYO eat in their homes?  How much do they know about healthy foods?

Informed by conversations in the community and formal interviews with women through TYO’s current needs assessment, Suhad, TYO’ s Psychosocial Program Manager, is able to provide valuable insight into our children’s eating patterns.  First, most parents don’t prepare breakfast for their children and instead give them 1-2 shekels (25 – 50 cents) to purchase food at school.  (The few who do prepare breakfast often give their children bread and cheese or yogurt.)  With their 2 shekels of spending money, children purchase snacks from their school canteen.  The children often choose to buy a combination of soda, chips, cookies, crackers, and candy because they are only .5 shekels each.  Needless to say, a breakfast filled with empty calories and an abundance of sugar does not give these children the energy they need to concentrate in school.   Instead, they become more hyperactive.

When children return home from school, they often eat their biggest meal of the day --lunch.    Because of the low income of the people TYO serves, this meal only contains meat (usually chicken because it is cheapest) twice a week at most.  Most other days, the meal is based on potatoes and rice.  A common lunch dish for children is fried potatoes served inside white pita bread with salt.  Another common dish for young children is rice with yogurt.  Many families are unable to purchase milk because it is very expensive, so instead, they buy instant juice mix.  Families only provide their children dinner when they have enough money to do so.  Often, this meal is a small sandwich with white bread, yogurt, and cheese.

The lack of nutrients, protein, and vitamins in this diet is clear.  So what should a healthy meal look like?  In June 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) transformed the traditional food pyramid into a more consumer-friendly plate, illustrating the proportions of vegetables, fruits, grains, protein, and dairy a person should eat at every meal.  The USDA recommends that vegetables and fruits account for half of a meal; at least half of grains are whole grains; protein sources are lean; and dairy products are fat-free or low-fat.

In Suhad’s experience, when asking about providing healthy food, most mothers explain that they do not have enough money to purchase it.  Instead of focusing on what kinds of foods they should be serving their children, they are simply focusing on providing enough food.  On the rare occasion that they can afford it, they can only purchase vegetables that are in season because they are the cheapest.  Moreover, the culture of teaching children why healthy food is important does not exist.  Suhad noticed that even when the family does have enough money, they don’t know how to cook in a healthy manner.  While mothers know that healthy foods exist, they may not understand the benefits of eating it and likewise, the consequences from not eating well.

At TYO, every child is offered a healthy meal that reflects the USDA guidelines.  Meals vary daily, but consist of a combination of the following options: a bowl of lentil or bean soup, whole wheat bread, sliced cucumbers, sliced apples, sliced tomatoes, a whole wheat sandwich with olive oil, and freshly squeezed juice (no sugar added).  For many children, not only does TYO offer their first complete meal of the day, but it also provides their only source of some essential nutrients.

Want to help provide healthy meals to the children TYO serves?  Join our Racing the Planet Campaign.