KARAWANG, West Java, Indonesia — The air carries the buzz of a carnival, as mothers gather on rainbow-striped palm mats and children take turns washing their hands from metal canisters. The singsong of their voices mingles with the sound of bananas popping in oil.
Under the peaked roof of the community center women in headscarves nibble at cassava snacks molded into teddy bears, lime-green gelatinous kebabs covered with sprinkles and heart-shaped tofu garnished with chili-blossom flowers.
The food on display at this cooking competition on the outskirts of Jakarta has not scrimped on presentation. But the judges’ faces are unmoved. They will wait to see the children’s verdict.
These mothers-turned-chefs have brought their creative ideas, very literally, to the table, as examples of how healthy foods can appeal to children.
Their challenge: make food kids like using cassava and tofu — two cheap, everyday staples in West Java, an area where 13 percent of children are malnourished and nearly 35 percent suffer from stunting caused by nutrient deficiencies.
It's a bit like "Master Chef" for the poor, say those who run the competition, part of a joint program between U.S. food producer Kraft and Save the Children.
The program aims to curb high rates of malnutrition in the area, by spreading the word that healthy food can appeal to kids raised on a diet of fried snacks and carbohydrates.
“If it looks interesting the kids will like it,” said Nenti, a 38-year-old mother of two bright-faced adolescents.
Children in her village often go to food stalls, where they fill up on snacks like fried potato patties. Many stalls are dirty, says Nenti, and the food is not fresh, but most mothers don’t know it’s unhealthy.
Malnutrition is particularly acute in the country’s far east, where millions of poor households face food shortages brought on in part by economic constraints.
In West Java the problem is less extreme. Chronic malnutrition here results from unhealthy nutritional practices, poor hygiene and a lack of access to health services, said Jennifer Rosenzweig, the head of health and nutrition at Save the Children in Jakarta.
That's where the cook-off comes in.
Every few months female community leaders like Nenti gather to swap recipes and learn how they can make healthy food for their families using local ingredients. About three times a year, these gatherings also involve a cook-off.
Mothers can come, see the food, taste it and then take away the recipe, says Yanti, a program manager for the Women’s Resource Development Center (PPSW), a local non-governmental organization assisting Save the Children with its outreach.
In other villages community leaders demonstrate how to make the dishes. “What’s important is that the children like it,” Yanti said.
That’s no easy task given limited ingredients. Rising inflation and food shortages caused by extreme weather have hit Indonesia hard since last November. Government officials have appealed to Indonesians to eat corn and cassava rather than rice, a staple in most Indonesian diets.
The cooking competition is part of a program called Fresh, which works with governments and community leaders to teach mothers how to prepare local food to suit local tastes.
They start by looking at how healthy families eat. Then they work with female community leaders, called cadres, to spread information to mothers about healthy eating habits.
“Although food is available, the food choices families make are not nutritious,” Rosenzweig said. “Families rely heavily on rice, but are introducing fewer vegetables and proteins, which are important for development.”
Tofu, eggs, leafy greens and carrots are all available in village markets, but health consultants say some parents dismiss them because they think healthy food should be expensive.
“People are afraid of malnourishment because they know it can lead to developmental delays and slower brain functioning,” said Madarina Julia, a pediatric endocrinologist at Gadjah Mada University. They try to give their children as much as they can, but they also want food that is tasty. Cassava is widely considered a poor person’s food.
As a result, Julia says wealthy families eat more meat, while the urban poor dines on more fried food and sugary drinks, thanks to their increased affordability.
Indonesia’s economy is one of the fastest growing in Asia, and this year the country achieved middle-income status with a GDP per capita of $3,000.
But 37 percent of children still suffer from stunted growth as a result of chronic malnutrition. Around 18 percent of children in Indonesia are malnourished, compared to 9 percent in Thailand, a country with similar growth rates, according to the World Health Program.
Other side effects include anemia, worms, increased susceptibility to illness and poor cognitive development, which makes it difficult for children to concentrate in school and, often, leads to harsh reprimands from teachers who don’t understand why children are struggling to focus.
The need to plug the gap between those who have benefited from Indonesia’s development and the 49 percent of the population that still lives on less than $2 per day is one reason Save the Children is focused on West Java, an area located in what Rosenzweig calls “the shadow” of Jakarta’s affluence.
“Kids see food advertised on television and they think it looks better than the food they get at home,” said Yanti.
To get them eating at home, rather than at food stalls, Nenti says moms need to make meals eye-catching. The winning ticket is creativity, she explains.
Yet many mothers say they don’t have time to prepare healthy meals and prefer to eat out. Other children have parents who themselves are in poor health or under-nourished.
The Fresh program only started in Karawang in January, but mothers here say they recognize the importance of providing good nutrition to their children.
Nelly Gastiawati, 31, points to her 3-month-old son and gives a nod of approval. “He weighs 4 kilograms. That’s good.”
The challenge, says Rosenzweig is promoting food kids like that is also healthy. “We see a lot of fried foods and sweets. We want to make sure they’re not just promoting kids’ favorite things.”
When Kraft first started working in Indonesia it introduced a product called Biskuat, a fortified biscuit that sells for less than $0.10 a pack. The idea was to give malnourished kids cheap access to nutrition.
Now nutritionists say it’s more important to teach them healthy eating habits so they’ll have the tools to make good decisions later in life.
As Indonesia develops it faces the unique dilemma of having a society of poorly nourished people who are both too thin and too fat. It’s what Rosenzweig calls the “double burden” of malnutrition-driven obesity.
“When adults who experience poor nutrition early in life have access to a range of food — healthy and unhealthy — they are more at risk of becoming obese because of their bodies’ poor ability to process that food,” she said.
Some of the women in Karawang are delicate. Nenti is 5’2.’’ Many more are plump.
After the judges have tried and rated all the dishes, the cadres pass out the food to the children. Within minutes only empty platters and scattered crumbs are left on the table.
Hati Solastri, the chef of the winning dish, says changing mindsets takes time. Her cassava rolls stuffed with vegetables look like a colorful version of Hostess Ho-Ho cakes, but they are by far the healthiest option of the bunch.
For Gastiawati, however, the clean plates speak of success. “Everything is gone, so they must have liked it,” she said with a giggle.