Joining the first-ever research of its kind in Cambodia, primary school children queue with their parents and wait to receive an examination card.
Photo: WFP/Somealea Ngay
Can using fortified rice in WFP's school meals programme be the game changer in the fight against malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, particularly among primary school-aged children? A nine-month study to be conducted in 20 schools in Cambodia's Kampong Speu province is set to give us the answer.
KAMPONG SPEU - For many parents in Kampong Speu province, this is the first time their children have been involved in extensive testing for research: with anthropometrical measurements, blood and urine samples as well as cognitive performance tests.
Some 125 students from Prey Kantouch Primary School in Toeuk Laork commune, about 50 km south of Cambodia's capital city Phnom Penh, were tested as part of a baseline data collection exercise conducted for the FORISCA (Fortified Rice for School Meals in Cambodia) study. Through a three-way partnership, the World Food Programme (WFP), the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) and the Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD) are seeking to improve the evidence base for rice fortification, and to demonstrate the impact of improving the nutritional quality of the staple food, which many Cambodian children receive as part of their daily school meal.
Fortified rice is regular white rice blended with fortified grains at a ratio of 1:100. The fortified synthetic grains are identical to natural rice in smell, taste and texture, but enriched with essential vitamins and minerals. Using fortified rice in school meals can be a cost-effective and safe way to improve the nutritional status of schoolchildren without having to change food consumption patterns.
The rice fortification study is supported by the participating communities in Kampong Speu province and the children's parents, many of whom decided to skip work for a day to accompany their children to the health tests and to witness the research procedures.
Standing in the shade of a tree close to the registration desk at school, a young mother, Ngeth Sok Lub, expects her seven-year-old daughter to be healthier in the future thanks to the introduction of fortified rice. The school principal Prum Sarim is happy to be part of the study and to facilitate the data collection. “Prey Kantouch Primary School is honoured to participate in this groundbreaking research, which determines the state of our children's physical well-being and which would hopefully improves their nutritional status,” he says. This is the first time such a study has been conducted in Cambodia.
The distribution of fortified rice as part of WFP's school meals programme started in December 2012. Twenty schools were divided into different research groups, testing different types of fortified rice. A control group will only receive normal rice or no rice at all, in order to be able to compare the impact of fortified rice at the end of the study.
Khov Kuong, focal point for the FORISCA project from the Ministry of Agriculture is very optimistic about the nutritional benefits of fortified rice and believes this new technology to be a sustainable solution to improve the health and nutrition of Cambodian children. “When the results are released at the end of the study, we will introduce the outcomes to policymakers and ask for further support,” he said.
In many studies, mostly conducted in Latin America and Africa, rice fortification has proven to be safe and effective in improving the micronutrient status of children. In 2010, WFP and IRD conducted an acceptability study on fortified rice in several WFP-supported schools in Kampong Speu province. The study showed that fortified rice is well accepted among schoolchildren, parents and teachers, many of whom preferred the fortified rice over the regular rice.
This study is supported by the United States Department of Agriculture(USDA) and the WFP-DSM partnership, in close collaboration with the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture.