A school lunch program in Vietnam aims to improve children’s health
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Amid economic development, Vietnam still faces challenges
Nearly half a century on from the reunification of North and South Vietnam, life for ordinary Vietnamese has arguably never been better. The economy is booming, living standards and household incomes are rising, and foreign tourists are again returning following the pandemic, drawn by unspoiled beaches, vibrant cities, rich cultural attractions, and the country’s world-famous cuisine.
But despite these great strides, people in this southeast Asian country of nearly 100 million still lack proper knowledge about how to prepare nutritionally balanced meals for primary school children. While the prevalence of stunting in this age group is lower than 10 years ago, the prevalence of overweight and obese children has increased markedly, especially in urban area. Some years back, Vietnam implemented a school lunch program to address these problems. But the country’s schools lacked qualified nutritionists to design delicious meals made with diverse ingredients that could provide children’s daily recommended allowance of nutrients with a balance of carbohydrates, fat, protein, salt, and calories.
A Japan model for improving school-based nutrition
In the late 1940s, when Japan faced a similar situation with child nutrition, the government implemented its own school lunch program to address it. Then, in the 1980s, the issue shifted to childhood obesity and new nutritional guidelines were drafted. Today, Japan is the only country in the world where obesity rates are actually falling, and life expectancy is the longest in the world and rising.
In 2012, Ajinomoto Vietnam Co., Ltd. (AVN) launched a project to bring ideas adapted from Japan’s lunch program to primary boarding schools across Vietnam, with the aim of contributing to the healthy development of children nationwide. Working closely with Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training and National Institute of Nutrition, AVN’s School Meal Project has developed menu books and educational materials about food and nutrition, introduced software that assists in planning menus, and set up model school kitchens to show visitors how to prepare healthy, nutritionally balanced meals and operate kitchens hygienically, safely and efficiently. By October 2022, the School Meal Project had been deployed in 62 of Vietnam’s 63 provinces and cities, and 4,262 school had registered for the project and applied for the menu-planning software.
Tools to help communities address local needs
The School Meal Project software provides a menu bank of 120 menus with over 360 non-repeatable lunch dishes. These menus satisfy the nutritional standards for primary school aged children and are tailored to local tastes in each of the country’s three main regions: north, central and south. This is an effective tool to help schools standardize boarding school menus, providing delicious and nutrition-balanced lunches for pupils.
More than handouts, people need the tools and knowhow to rebuild their lives and stand again on their own two feet again—especially after times of great adversity. As the saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Throughout the Asia region, other Ajinomoto Group companies are exploring similar school-based nutrition programs to address the needs of children and adolescents.
Before lunchtime, pupils are introduced to the lunch menu and educated about the nutritional information and benefits of each kind of food included, via the “Three Minutes to Change Awareness” program. In addition to support from Ajinomoto Vietnam Co., Ltd., the Embassy of Japan in Vietnam, the Japanese Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City, as well as authorities and parents all provided valuable financial support of the model kitchens.