Cash crunch weighs down on Vietnam's plan to improve average height

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Students practice martial art at a primary school in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dao Ngoc Thach

The social affairs ministry has put off a US$10 billion program to increase the population's average height by providing free milk to school children at least until next year, citing the government's cut in public spending.

For the last several months officials from the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs have been discussing the "School milk" plan to provide fresh milk daily to 400,000 children at nurseries and primary schools in the country's 62 poorest districts.

A ministry source told Tuoi Tre newspaper the plan, which was to have been submitted to the government at the end of this year for approval, would wait until the economy recovers.

The government, whose finances are in the red, is cutting spending on many public programs.

GDP growth fell to a 13-year low of 5.03 percent last year.

The milk plan would rely largely on central funding since it is targeted at poor neighborhoods, the source said.

Nguyen Trong An, deputy director of the ministry's Children Healthcare and Protection Department, said the plan would need dairy companies to pitch in by offering milk at reasonable prices.

Children in kindergartens will be given 220 ml of milk daily and those in primary school, 180 ml. The program aims to raise the average height of the populace by around three centimeters by 2020 and four centimeters by 2030.

An average Vietnamese man measures 164.4 centimeters (5 feet 4 inches) and woman, 153.4 centimeters (5 feet), according to a survey by the National Nutrition Institute, which said the figures put Vietnam at among the lowest in the region.

Nguyen Thi Lam, deputy head of the National Nutrition Institute, said surveys have shown "outstanding height development" in Vietnamese youths since 1990s, but only in big cities where living standards are higher.

Deputy Minister of Health Le Quang Cuong, launching Vietnam's first ever nutrition training course October 2, said Vietnam lacks experts to make sure school meals provide children enough nutrition for growth.

Intervention to improve height works best until a child reaches 18 but school meals are not planned based on nutrition, he said.

"The quality of school meals is even lower in rural areas."

Nguyen Cong Khan, head of the health ministry's Department of Science and Technology, said conditions have not been conducive for Vietnamese to maximize their height potentials

Studies have found that many Vietnamese living in France since birth are as tall as their French counterparts, he said.

Infections also hinder a person's growth, so any program to increase height should combine nutrition with food and environmental hygiene, he added.

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