Hungry in the City

Three mothers share the daily struggle of putting food on the table in Kuala Lumpur

Diana Chai
Lady selecting vegetables at sundry shop
18 October 2019

As part of a special report for the State of the World's Children 2019, UNICEF visited a low cost flat in Kuala Lumpur to highlight the daily struggle faced by families to put nutritious food on the table when their incomes fall below Malaysia's poverty line. Despite living in the glare of city lights, their realities are far less bright. 

The issue of urban poverty is not new and UNICEF has previously highlighted concerns in the 2018 study Children Without. This time around we deal solely on the issue of nutrition and heard from 3 mothers about how poverty affects their food choices. 

Anything but eggs!

“My children know when I get paid and they usually ask to eat out! As long as they don’t have to eat more eggs – they are happy,” single mother, Nur Haslina tells us about what her children would like to eat. The dislike for eggs comes from the fact that Nur Haslina cannot afford meat or fish on most days and chooses eggs to give her children some protein. 

Daily breakfasts consist of nasi lemak bungkus from a nearby stall or plain fried rice she makes at home. For lunch and dinner, she serves eggs in gravy or fried taugeh (bean sprouts). Once or twice a month the family will enjoy fish. Meat is only reserved for special occasions.

Lady in headscarf cooking
Nur Haslina cooking a meal for her family.

It is only through such sacrifices that the mother of four is able to save RM200 a month from her income of RM800 (RM400 from her job as a cleaner and RM400 from the welfare department), as a safety net for her youngest son born with a heart ailment and for the future as she worries about her contract as a cleaner ending next month.

“A lot of money goes towards the upkeep of my motorbike but I need it to take my son for his medical check-ups,” she tells us. 

Her eldest son, 13, stays with her ex-husband and requires an allowance as well as her ex does not work. 

Mother with her two children as they eat.
Nur Haslina and her two youngest children at meal time.

No good meal in days

One of the most heartbreaking stories came from single mother Rohana, whose 7 children, she reluctantly admitted, had not eaten a decent meal in days prior to the interview. Rohana does not have a stable job, and makes a small profit selling homemade soaps and toiletries online. On good months, she sees up to RM300 in profit but this varies from month to month and most of the time, she makes much less. She receives RM400 from Baitulmal. But this amount is barely enough to feed her children and herself even the most modest of food after paying rent and bills.

“Most days our lunch and dinner will be white rice with a piece of chicken from a stall nearby that we cut into many small pieces to share. On better days, we may have some egg.”

Breakfast is often unheard of in her home. It is shown that Malaysian children frequently skip breakfast. For Rohana - this is not by choice.

bowl of white rice
Stock image. Images of Rohana and her children have not been shared to protect their privacy.

Working hard for a fast food meal

Whilst most urban children do not have to think twice before walking into a fast-food restaurant, Siti’s children need to work and save before they can afford a fast food chicken meal. Her youngest daughter has been making chocolate treats to sell and her sons have been working part time in a factory and sundry shop to supplement the family’s income and save up for their longed for treat.

Despite her children taking on odd jobs to help, Siti’s household income is about RM800. The amount is not fixed, as her husband’s job installing wallpaper and flooring is based on how many orders he receives and her income is derived from selling kuih and Malaysian ice-cream. Between paying rent and bills, Siti finds herself needing credit from her neighbourhood sundry shop and ensuring her food options maximise their spending. Siti’s family tried to start a side business selling burgers with a cash aid from the welfare department but their stall was closed by DBKL. 

Lady cooking in kitchen
Siti cooking lunch for her family.

The family’s typical meals consist of plain fried rice for breakfast, white rice, sardine and taugeh (bean sprouts) for lunch and dinner. If there is nothing fresh to be had, Siti keeps a packet of burger patties on hand, which she cubes to make sambal. On payday, her eldest son sometimes buys roti canai as a breakfast treat for the family.

To add to the complexity of sourcing the right foods for the right price, Siti also has an 11 year old daughter with disabilities who requires a special diet and needs to be sent to a school for children with special needs. Her daughter cannot eat red meat and gluten, making the task of finding her filling and nutritious meals at a budget, that much harder for the mother of five.

"I would like to feed my family healthier meals but I can only give what I can afford," she shares. 

Lady appearing sad in living room

Just a snippet

These are just some of the stories from the low cost flat visited by the team. For urban poor families, convenience and cost are the deciding factors. Unable to afford childcare or transportation, they cannot go far to find the 'best deals' or certain types of food. They largely depend on what is near at hand and available at a price they can afford. More often than not, nutrition content is cast aside for the practical purpose of filling a tummy. 


A boy eats his lunch in one of KL's low cost flats
A boy eats his lunch in one of KL's low cost flats.

For more on these stories and stories from around the world on child malnutrition, download a copy of the State of the World's Children Report 2019.



darkened hallway in home