Time to target school lunches

Abu Dhabi has banned unhealthy food at schools and now Dubai and the Northern Emirates will follow suit.

Mohammed Othman points to the Galaxy chocolate bar and two bags of crisps he bought from the school canteen that morning. "We eat this every day," he says.

It is little wonder the canteen at the Al Safa Secondary School, the state high school in Dubai where Mohammed, 17, attends, is happy to serve them along with sugary Capri Sun drinks and cheese breads. All are on a Dubai government list of approved foods for school canteens. It may be a clue, therefore, to understanding why the UAE suffers one of the worst rates of childhood obesity in the world.

According to Unicef, the UN Children's Fund, one in eight children in the UAE can be classified as obese. That can only lay the groundwork for one of the world's fattest populations; Unicef says 70 per cent of Emirati adults are overweight. Last May, the World Health Organisation said two in five women in the Emirates are obese, as are more than one in four men. "Obesity is really an epidemic here," said Dr Anupama Madhavan Pillai, a general practitioner at the Al Noor Hospital in Abu Dhabi. "From small children to teenagers, I'm seeing a lot of obese kids. They have to do something about this."

That process has already begun in the capital. In concert with the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, the Abu Dhabi Education Council has stricter rules in place for canteens. They stipulate that schools cannot serve crisps, chocolates and sugary drinks. A long list of approved items includes whole-grain breads, fresh fruits and vegetables, yoghurt, meats, cheese and pasta. Hamburgers, pizza, shawarma and falafel are not allowed.

At the Al Afaq Model School in Abu Dhabi, the options are more plentiful. On a recent morning, students at its sit-down cafeteria could choose from a potato-and-egg sandwich, dates and cheese bruschetta. Fresh mango and banana juice were also on the menu. Now the Ministry of Education, which sets the rules for Dubai and the northern emirates, plans to follow suit. The Dubai Health Authority is also developing stricter rules for schools canteens in the emirate.

Health and education officials seem to agree that schools are a natural place to begin fighting the obesity epidemic, beginning with forcing canteens to serve healthy food to students. "The schools, they can really do it," Dr Pillai said. "Management should decide to have a healthy cafeteria in the school. "They should encourage kids to take more fruit and vegetables, but they are providing junk food and soft drinks in school, which should be stopped.

"Also they should also be educated about having a more healthy diet and being more active." Though a schedule for implementing the new rules has not been announced, ministry officials say it will happen soon, in concert with several other new schemes to try to curb high rates of childhood obesity and type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes. State and private schools will be required to offer healthier food, said Dr Osama al Lalla, the ministry's head of student activities.

In spite of tighter regulations in Abu Dhabi, many private schools do not comply with guidelines. Abdulla al Faheem, an Emirati businessman whose five children attend private schools in the capital, said more should be done to ensure schools are serving healthy meals. "After a hard day you need to have good food," Mr al Faheem said. "They pay for it, it's not for free." He would prefer to send his children to school with packed lunches, but the school does not allow it, he said.

The school also does not have a kitchen. "First thing, they should give them two options," he said. "If the children want to bring their own food, OK. Then, I would rather see them cooking there. "Right now, they don't have options. You have to buy what they are offering." What they are offering at his childrens' school, Mr al Faheem said, is still burgers, pizza and pasta. Other countries have also targeted school lunches in an effort to tackle childhood obesity.

In the UK, the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver used a 2005 television series to campaign for junk food to be eliminated from school canteens, demanding that they should instead have proper kitchens to produce fresh and nutritious meals. As well as bans on some of the unhealthiest foods, the campaign secured hundreds of millions of pounds in government funding for an education drive. The benefits may not be restricted to student health: an independent study of 11-year-old pupils eating Mr Oliver's meals determined that healthy food improved academic performance as well by eight per cent in science and six per cent in English. Absenteeism dropped, too, by 15 per cent.

In the US, the renowned restaurateur Alice Waters has led a similar campaign, calling for the federal government to fund free healthy breakfast and lunch options. She claims that the short-term expense costs a country far less than the long-term health-care charges caused by the effects of childhood obesity. UAE public schools, many of which lack kitchens and canteens entirely, may be more limited in their ability to promote healthy eating; unlike in the UK, most schools do not offer full hot meals.

"I want more options," said Odai Omer, a student at Al Safa. "There is a lot they can offer for us. Healthy food, it would be much better. "They could give us some fruit," Odai said, adding that it would be nice to have a hot meal. But first, his classmate Mohammed Abduljabar said, "We need a lunch room." klewis@thenational.ae