Nutritional supplements for school children

30 August 2007

If the government of Sri Lanka wishes to undertake any school-based nutritional programs, it must take the form of nutritional supplements rather than the wasteful “milk-and-buns-for-all” form (I’m referring to a 1990’s program). One of the vitamins Sri Lankans are most deficient in happens to be one of the cheapest: vitamin B. Beri-Beri–a disease resulting from vitamin B deficiency–is named after the Sinhalese word for it.

There are many school children who do not receive their daily allowance of calories. But it is wasteful to use a blanket program to reach such a subset. It spreads the finances too thin: the only things that can be provided to ALL school children is something as nutritionally worthless as a bun and a sugar-laden packet of flavored milk.

Sri Lankans (even affluent ones) are deficient in certain vitamins and minerals due to the nature of their diet. A blanket program should target THIS deficiency. A TARGETED program should reach the calorie-deficient group (but should be done in a way that will not subject the child to social stigma).

The B complex of vitamins and vitamin C are safe for un-prescribed mass distribution. Overdoses are not absorbed by the body due to water-solubility. These two vitamins are essential for the proper functioning of many bodily functions, including the immune system and the nervous system. Among the many symptoms of deficiency are increased susceptibility to viral and bacterial infections, reduced alertness and lethargy. Vitamins B and C are extremely cheap, easy to transport and store (compared to food items).

I am skeptical of government-sponsored programs with good intentions. However, every administration wants to undertake them. Therefore the best taxpayers can do is at least demand that they attempt the proper program. Iodine supplemented salt has demonstrated some success in fighting hypothyroidism. The benefits of daily vitamin B and C supplements may be even higher. On the long term, savings in public health care costs may help offset part of the program’s costs.