To improve the food offered in Brazilian public schools and to reduce infant malnutrition, through the adoption of modern concepts in nutritional foodstuffs, are the objectives of a study being developed by researchers at the Medical Science School of the Catholic Pontificate University of Campinas (a university which, by the way, has been cooperating with the city administration since 1993 through its Nutrition Course). Coordinated by Semíramis Martins Álvares Domene, the project has already evaluated the menu and the nutritional state of a group of children and adolescents attended to by the National Program of School Food (Pnae) in the poorest regions of the city of Campinas. The result was worrying: the diet of the program did not offer the quantities necessary of essential micro nutrients.
The project (Nutritional Quality Indicators for the Management of the National Program of School Food in the city of Campinas ) is supported by FAPESP and has as its partner the City Department of Education, which intends, not only to implement the program in the city, but as well to generate results which may be applied in other schools in the country. The reasons are more than justified. The Pnae attends to close to 37 million school children throughout the country and the responsibility for its administration (in the State of São Paulo) has been with the cities since 1993.
It is a costly program. Only in Campinas, the annual expenditure is of the order of R$ 21 million to attend to 165,000 children. “But it is in the poor class areas that the program becomes of greater importance, as the food received at school is the main meal of the day, if not the only one”, says Corinta Geraldi, the city education secretary. To improve the quality of this meal – a term which the nutritionists prefer to use instead of school “snack” – could be a very efficient way of tackling the problem of malnutrition in Brazil, above all in the very poor classes where it gets to as high as 7% of the population.
In Semíramis' opinion, the program has already improved a lot in relation to the number of pupils covered, the sanitary quality of the food and even from the nutritional point of view. But this is still not enough. “The Pnae policy was defined in 1955”, says the researcher. “The technical parameters adopted were very good for that time, but knowledge with respect to the biochemistry of nutrients and of adequate cooking techniques have advanced considerably in the last few years, and the policy has lagged behind.”
The result of this failure to keep up is a diet which takes into account only the quantity of proteins and calories, but is not capable of attending to the daily necessities in the consumption of essential micro nutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamin A. The shortage of these elements could result in serious problems of health, such as anemia, stunted growth, poor body development,repeated infections etc. The long term consequences are also serious: they could “contribute to the development of many illnesses which only show themselves in the adult phase, which also represents a heavy social cost,” explains Semíramis.
The first phase of the study evaluated the nutritional state of schools in Vila União, one of 18 poor areas identified in Campinas, and the food offered at school. The greatest problems found were with respect to iron and zinc. “The children are taking in on average 48% of the necessary iron and only 28% of the necessary zinc”, she says. The study has also demonstrated that the table of the composition of the food used by the nutritionists doesn't reflect the reality of the food produced in Brazil. According to the table, of North American origin, milk should contain 0.4 mg/100g of zinc, but the analysis done by the researchers has revealed that the milk offered in schools contains only 0.05 mg/100g.
In the second phase of the project, the study should cover more of the poor regions and a greater number of diet items will be evaluated. The research is also going to promote the formation of multiplying agents. The idea is that the teachers and other school workers help to make the children and their families more aware of the importance of the food received at school. “There is no point in only offering a richer and better balanced diet. We need to guarantee that this food will in fact to consumed, which demands an additional effort to give incentive to more healthy eating habits” explains Semíramis. The project, which should be completed by 2003, is going to suggest a series of measures to improve the menu, including combinations of foodstuffs that favor the absorption of essential micro nutrients – and a change in the manner of preparation that better preserves its nutritional value. Testing will be done through the pupils themselves: they will say whether or not they approve of the new taste of the menu.Republish