School canteens fall short of guidelines

Poor food choices in cafeterias, with burgers as likely to be on the menu as vegetables.

DUBAI // Most school canteens in Dubai fail to comply with municipal food safety and hygiene guidelines, according to a survey. The study by the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) paints a grim picture of the food choices available to the emirate's schoolchildren.

The survey found that only three in 10 schools use fresh ingredients to feed the pupils, the rest either relying on packaged foods or providing no food. Some 54 per cent of schools offered fresh fruit salad three times a week, and half provided dairy products every day. The survey, which was conducted between April and June, had an 85 per cent response rate from Dubai's 216 schools. Of the 82 public schools, 95 per cent responded; of the 134 private schools, 78 per cent.

A full breakdown of results was not available yesterday. Dr Ali al Marzouqi, head of public health and safety at the DHA, said the results gave the authority a starting point for change. He said it was crucial that youngsters did not "get hooked on fast foods", which are the leading cause of obesity. Dr Faitha Hatem, the authority's head of health promotion, said that while the results showed schools were making an effort, clearly more needed to be done.

A statement released by the DHA said only 45 per cent of schools followed nutritional guidelines, most of which were created by Dubai Municipality and concern food safety and hygiene. Regulations in Abu Dhabi are considered stricter, with certain foods, such as chocolate, crisps and sugary drinks, banned from schools. The Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority and the Abu Dhabi Education Council provide schools with a list of approved foods including whole-grain bread, fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, cheese and pasta.

According to the DHA, three out of 10 schools in Dubai serve burgers and hot dogs, and 12 per cent have vending machines with soft drinks. Two in 10 schools serve fresh milk - and one per cent offer energy drinks, which contain high levels of caffeine and sugar. In December, a National Nutritional Committee was set up after the World Health Organisation (WHO) said the consequences of nutritional disorders in the region were "too grave to be ignored".

A draft five-year strategy from the Ministry of Health and the WHO, which was released in May, said weak surveillance and a lack of co-ordination between authorities were contributing to the rise of obesity. The UAE has one of the world's highest rates of childhood obesity. According to the United Nations, childhood obesity affects one in eight children in the country. UAE children as young as seven years have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, which was previously seen as a disease of the above-40 age group and described as adult-onset diabetes.

According to the draft nutrition strategy, six out of 10 children aged five to 14 eat chips and chocolate every day, while three out of 10 have a daily portion of vegetables. The new survey says three in five school administrators want help from health professionals, and almost half called for nutritional educational support for teachers. "It should be a top-down approach," concurred Dr Ayesha al Dhaheri, a member of the nutritional committee and assistant professor at UAE University in Al Ain. "Schools need help with resources and knowledge about how to provide good foods. They have limited resources so any guidelines need to be flexible, otherwise they will not be followed."

Almost half the schools studied have canteen managers who make decisions about the food available, but only a fifth of these involved parents or students in their selections. Kirsten Brooks packs a homemade lunch for her three children, who attend Wellington International School, but said the food in the canteen was adequate. "Any parent would feel despair if their children are not provided healthy options," she said. "We don't want burgers and fries on the menu, we want to get kids to drink more water in this weather instead of fizzy drinks and sugary juices."

The school also has a responsibility to educate pupils and parents, she said: "It's frustrating to send your child with a healthy lunchbox when there are children coming with unhealthy food that is not refrigerated properly, or contains processed cheese, or a bag of chips." Claire Fenner, whose four-year-old son attends Dubai British School, packs him a lunch based on guidelines sent from the school.

"The basic guidelines tell us not to send sweets, chocolate and cakes and to focus more on healthy foods like fruit snacks and whole grains," she said. While parents are encouraged to "think healthy" and not take shortcuts by relying on packaged and processed foods, she suggested the school could hold classes to show parents how to plan a sound lunch that will not go bad in the heat.