As four lanes become two and asphalt turns to dirt, we turn the corner and drive up a smaller path leading to the U Cho Rice Mill, where U Myo Wai, the rice mill owner, steps out to greet us. Rice millers like him receive technical support from PATH to produce fortified rice, a blend of rice enriched with vitamins and minerals.
While giving us a tour of his facilities, U Myo Wai explains that what excites him about this venture is that it represents a merging of his business interests and sense of civic responsibility.
Just as rice millers in Myanmar have chosen to make an investment in fortified rice, various organizations in Myanmar are switching out regular rice for nutritional fortified rice. PATH is helping connect these organizations with fortified rice producers to integrate this nutritious staple food into their meal programs. There’s hope that this work, which is funded by the Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund (LIFT), will help improve nutrition across the country. We have come a long way since fortified rice first hit the shelves in Myanmar.
Promoting healthier, stronger athletes
The Sports and Physical Education Academy in Yangon, an institute with more than 400 gifted young athletes, is one of many organizations making the switch to fortified rice. Vitamins and minerals are essential for building, repairing, and maintaining the body after rigorous exercise, and fortified rice provides some of the extra nutritional boost that athletes need.
I like to think that these promising athletes—made stronger by a healthier diet with fortified rice—will one day bring glory to Myanmar in the Southeast Asian Games. For now, I’m simply excited they enjoy eating the rice. One student said that fortified rice tastes the same as normal rice, and it’s much easier to swallow than a vitamin tablet!
Meals on Wheels, Myanmar style
Fortified rice is also finding its way to the daily lunch boxes of 347 schoolchildren in Ingabu, a township in the Ayeyarwaddy Region south of Myanmar. Dr. Nanda Win, the founder of the Affordable Meals on Wheels program, has chosen to switch out the regular rice, which he serves in mobile lunch carts for children in the area, with fortified rice.
As a community doctor, Dr. Win was first struck by the extraordinarily high prevalence of goiter in the area. He noticed that many families maintained a poor daily diet of fish paste and rice. This was how Dr. Win developed a passion for promoting nutrition as a cornerstone of health, which eventually drove him to create the Affordable Meals on Wheels program. When I asked how he believes fortified rice fits into his program, Dr. Win said that fortified rice is the clear solution for people who want to improve their nutrition in a simple, effective way—and ensure everyone, including the kids, enjoy their meals.
It all begins with early childhood nutrition
The Department of Social Welfare, under the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, has also made the switch for 51 of its preschools as part of a comprehensive nutrition program, Fortifying the Future with Fortified Rice. As a result, more than 6,500 children aged two to five in the Yangon, Ayeyarwady, Bago, and Nay Pyi Taw Regions of Myanmar will eat fortified rice as part of their midday meal.
Stunting is still a significant public health challenge in Myanmar—on average, nearly one in three children are too short for their age. Research in other countries backs up fortified rice’s nutritional benefits. In India, 5- to 12-year-old children who ate fortified rice increased their iron stores. Brazil and Mexico have seen similar nutritional benefits. With the eventual nationwide expansion of the program, I am hopeful that thousands more children in Myanmar will improve micronutrient intake and nutrition during their most formative years.
Just the beginning
It’s always been our goal to ensure fortified rice reaches those with the highest risk of micronutrient deficiencies. My team, our private-sector partners, and I rejoice as we see more and more inquiries from charities, hospitals, nongovernmental organizations, and other organizations interested in integrating fortified rice in their meal programs.
It’s clear that improved health in Myanmar is not something that will come with the flip of a switch. But a simple switch to fortified rice—a staple food that’s easy to procure and requires no change in our people’s diets—holds the promise to dramatically improve health in Myanmar for generations to come.
- Dr. Myo Myint Aung is a project director with the Mekong Regional Program at PATH.