Schools to provide healthy meals

Lifestyle moderation programmes targeting overweight children will start at the start of the next school year.

Chips and chocolate are to make way for cereal and fresh fruit in Dubai's public schools.
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DUBAI // Public schools in Dubai are to be forced to provide compulsory healthy meals to pupils as part of an initiative to reduce obesity in children. The healthy-eating revolution in government-run schools will see chips, chocolate and fizzy drinks replaced by cereal, fresh fruit and juice from the start of the next school year in September. Inspectors will visit schools to evaluate the nutritional value of meals being served in every school.

Although not initially included in the pilot project, private schools are also being encouraged to adopt healthy menus. It has already been announced that a comprehensive lifestyle modification programme targeting overweight children will be implemented in schools under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health in the coming academic year. The programme, piloted in a middle school in Sharjah in February, has produced encouraging results with 14 male students losing an average 3.5 kilograms over eight weeks.

Nutritional advice, physical exercise and health education are part of the project, the first of its kind in the country. A recent research survey by the Health and Medical Services Department in Dubai revealed that 26.6 per cent of secondary school pupils are overweight and 12.2 per cent are obese. Accompanying the alarming rise in obesity is an increase in diabetes, anaemia and rotten teeth and gums among the city's youngsters.

"The problem is that kids come without eating breakfast, or they are eating chips for breakfast and walking into school with cans of Red Bull, in many secondary schools this is the case," said Fatma al Marri, chief executive officer of the Schools Agency, part of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, the Government agency charged with raising education standards in Dubai. "Even though soft drinks are banned, they're still being brought in from outside," she said.

"The level of diabetes is really sad, particularly with primary students. The UAE has one of the highest levels of diabetes. Anaemia as well is a problem among students, and even if we look at things like the health of children's teeth and gums there are problems. If there was a study into all of this, I think it would shock a lot of people. It has to be better than this," Mrs Marri said. Although plans for the project are still being finalised and have not yet been approved, the aim is to start in September.

The Ministry of Health announced in April that schools may be fined if they break the proposed rules by selling junk food to pupils. Hamburgers, chips, chocolate and fizzy drinks are all on a list of banned foods, under the ministry's proposal. Medical experts say they are treating young adults in their mid-20s for heart disease caused by lack of exercise and poor diet. World Health Organization (WHO) figures show one child in three in the UAE is overweight or at risk of becoming so. About 25 per cent of pupils drink one or more cans of carbonated drinks a day, and 18 per cent eat in fast-food restaurants three or more times a week. Only 18.5 per cent eat fruit and vegetables five or more times a day, according to WHO figures.

A study published in Obesity Reviews in 2006 showed that 21.5 per cent of schoolchildren in the Gulf region were overweight and 13.7 per cent obese. Although schools have a major role to play in ensuring children eat healthily, Mrs Marri said a cultural shift in attitudes towards food must start with parents. "Kids must know from a very young age what is good to eat and what is bad. If they are healthy now, they will keep on eating healthily. A lot of parents are just giving the kids what they want to eat, putting junk in their lunch boxes every day, but that is really damaging their health."

Mrs Marri said all schoolchildren, not only those in government-run schools, should be encouraged to eat healthily. "We're not talking about private or public schools, we're talking about children, our kids and their health. So long as they are in Dubai or the UAE, it doesn't matter whether they are national or non-national, private or public, the issue is health and nutrition for all of them.", a Dubai-based school lunch delivery service, has been delivering healthy lunches to schoolchildren for more than six months. Children order lunch on the company's website, which offers combinations of healthy foods such as fruit, fresh sandwiches and yogurts. Nine schools have signed up to the service, seven are on the waiting list and, by the end of the year, the company will be offering healthy packed lunches across the GCC.

"The uptake, without exception, from parents, children and school principals has been outstanding," said Lester Owencroft, the managing director of "Now they have actually got the choice from 187 different options for their lunch every day and they are all healthy foods. Our focus is to make this a community initiative to encourage and educate about healthy eating among children."