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Siti Latifah used to feel proud that she could buy her children snacks and instant foods, but she came to realize that this wasn’t healthy and it was her responsibility to teach them good eating habits. Now, as a teacher at Raudhatul Athfal (RA) Nuruzzaman, an Islamic-based kindergarten in Jember District, she has pioneered the development of a healthy canteen that provides nutritious snacks for children and encourages them to develop healthy food consumption patterns from an early age. This concept of a healthy canteen is creating a push for healthy eating within the community and expected to become a model for other schools in the district.

How does the healthy canteen get children to eat healthy?

SL: Children love to eat chiki-chiki (snacks) and unhealthy instant foods because they taste savory and it makes them feel rich. I started the healthy canteen as a way to teach children to live healthy. In my opinion, healthy food is food without flavoring agents or unnatural food coloring.

Cilok (fried dough) is one of the children’s favorite things to eat. In the healthy canteen, we make a version that is healthier than the cilok you buy on the street. We reduce the use of regular flour, using tapioca and rice flour instead. We also put vegetables in our cilok – carrots and spinach that we pick from around the school. And we make the sauce by ourselves. For example, right now tomato is cheap, so the mothers brought them and we turned them into a sauce.

In the beginning it was difficult for the children to accept the healthy canteen because they thought the canteen’s food was not as delicious as manufactured snacks or their mother’s cooking. Plus, our traditional snacks are packed with leaves, or use plates, while the ones from the factory use a very nice packaging and children prefer that. The children were asking their mothers for flavoring agents to add to their food because they didn't like it and the mothers were bringing it. After six months, one semester, they finally adapted to the taste.

Siti Latifah serving kids in the healthy canteen. Photo by: Tanoker

Why is it important to also educate mothers and fathers?

SL: Promoting healthy food to children is not effective if it’s not also promoted to the parents. When we found out that the mothers were bringing flavoring agents, we supported the mothers to also train the children to live healthy by slowly encouraging them to participate in events on healthy food. That’s why I established ‘Mother’s School’ with various themes. For example, right now we are discussing balanced nutrition – how we can serve healthy food at home so that our families can be healthy. I teach mothers how to use natural food coloring, using pandan leaves for green coloring and dragon fruit for red.

The challenge is when mothers finally change their households’ diets. They stop using preservatives or food coloring in their own kitchens, and then their husbands see it as a problem. They don’t like their wives changing their ways of cooking because it doesn’t taste as good to them as before. That is why now my husband also established 'Father’s School’, to educate the husbands on healthy food.

The healthy canteen program has not reached 100% awareness among mothers, but at least when I look at their cooking, 40% of them are making their kids healthy lunchboxes. Even though it’s not yet 100% of the mothers, I am grateful, because they are starting to change in just a short time. Now, the canteen is taken care of by mothers who have been trained on healthy food.

How else can we start a healthy food movement in Indonesia?

SL: In Mother’s School, we have a saying, “My child, your child, our child”. We must not only care about our own family. We also need to think about our community. Why? Because if our children eat healthy but our neighbors do not, then when they play, our children will follow their example. We have to share our knowledge.

I understand the importance of healthy food from attending Tanoker’s events, especially Pasar Lumpur (Mud Market) where I take the children and the mothers. We find many different kinds of food at Pasar Lumpur and that is why I like to go there. Mothers in my village usually cook moringa leaves or fried fish from the sea, but you don’t always have to fry the fish. You can see many ways of cooking fish at Pasar Lumpur. It makes mothers here get acquainted with mothers from other regions who also cook different things.

If we use these kinds of events to strengthen the grassroots, like village then sub-district, then automatically the whole of Indonesia will be healthy, too. But if you don’t start from the grassroots then it will not be sustainable. My hope is that the government will also promote healthy food. Would you bring my voice to the government to make them care about healthy food?

Tanoker, Hivos and IIED’s Sustainable Diets for All (SD4All) partner in Jember regency, has provided Siti Latifah with support on healthy food issues since 2017. The healthy canteen she started at RA Nuruzzaman is a way of providing healthy food to school children that can be replicated and used to make healthy food consumption a more dominant trend. The school’s way of working is expected to become a model for the development of healthy canteens in other schools with policy support from the Ministry of Religion of Jember District.

This interview was taken from the transcripts of the video, ‘Healthy Generations Ahead’, produced by Hivos and IIED, in collaboration with BrandOutLoud, for the SD4All program. Watch the video to learn more about Siti Latifah’s story and the lives of other individuals championing healthy food in Indonesia.

Header photo by: Mark van Luyk / BrandOutLoud