Saturday, July 17, 2010

Poor nutritional standards in Dubai’s school canteens

The Gulf Today, 9 July 2010

Canteens of Dubai’s 55 per cent of schools do not adhere to municipal guidelines on nutritional standards, food safety and hygiene, according to a study.
The school canteen health survey carried out by the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) recently revealed that 68 per cent of the city’s schools provide readymade food to students.
The cross-sectional survey carried out between April and June this year, covered a population of 150,000 students from the emirate’s 216 schools in both public and private sectors.
According to the survey, only 22 per cent of the schools prepare food in school cafeterias, while 10 per cent of schools do not provide any food services for students.
“About 77 per cent of the schools provide sandwiches on a daily basis, and 67 per cent provide bread and cereals.  Fifty-four per cent of the schools provide fresh fruit salads; however, it is on the menu only three times a week. Thirty per cent of the schools provide hotdogs and burgers, while 51 per cent of them provide dairy products and 21 per cent provide fresh milk on daily,” detailed a DHA statement.
“Sixty-three per cent of the schools provide processed fruit juices and seven per cent provide soft drinks daily, and one per cent of the schools daily provide energy drinks - a practice that never should be happening at school canteens,” it said. “And 20 per cent of schools have vending machines in their premises; of these, 12 per cent of the vending machines are stocked with soft drinks.”
“About 58 per cent of schools have two break timings and the average total break time amounts to approximately 30 minutes. About 61 per cent of schools have a canteen committee which is active and of these schools only 31 per cent have student representatives in this committee.”
In light of the survey, the DHA plans to develop unified policies and comprehensive guidelines to ensure the supply of healthy and nutritious meals at the canteens of schools across the emirate.
In terms of important recommendations, the public health and safety committee of the DHA has highlighted the need to develop a holistic school approach to nutrition.
“The proposals, based on the information provided in the survey, will be circulated to the school communities and other stakeholders for feedback,” according to health officials.
Dr Ali Al Marzooqi, Director of the Public Health Safety Sector in the Health Policy and Strategy Department of the DHA, said, “The unified dietary guidelines or handbook, consisting of relevant nutritional facts and recommended food intake for pupils, should be developed for the schools.”
“The guidelines include information on food, nutrition and healthy eating habits as well as takes into account values, attitudes and belief about food and eating. Also, potential sources of healthy food providers should be identified,” he added.
“Another significant recommendation is to involve health professionals like doctors and nurses of school clinics, to promote healthy eating habits among the students,” he pointed out.
According to Al Marzooqi, there is an urgent need to engage school principals, administrators and teachers and ensure they commit to improving nutrition in school canteens.
“Students and their parents should emerge as primary decision-makers in selection of food items, becoming part of canteen committees in the schools,” he added.
“Message on health and physical activities should be shared with them through articles in the school newsletter, announcements at school assemblies and community activities.”
“The DHA wants to build awareness and knowledge in schools and collect and disseminate current and reputable information about nutrition and health by roping in nutritional experts to be guest speakers in schools, through videos and other activities and educating teachers in the field of nutrition,” he noted.
Al Marzooki said that the survey provided the DHA with vital information and the baseline data on the food patterns of the schools, accordingly to develop policies for a better food provision services for the students.
“Nutrition across schools in Dubai is a crucial issue to ensure students follow a healthy eating pattern and do not get hooked on to fast foods which provide empty calories and are a leading cause of child obesity globally,” he added.
Dr Fathia Hatem, head of the health promotion section in the public health and safety department at the DHA, said, “Mostly public schools were found to have canteen committees and this is probably due to the implementation of the school health project across public schools.”
“About 62 per cent of the schools have their own canteen policy. The public schools mainly have only one slot for break timings,” she added.
“About 60 per cent of the school administrators urged the DHA to provide further assistance by health professionals, while 47 per cent asked for nutritional educational support of teachers and 43 per cent asked for parents’ support,” pointed out Dr Hatem.
“Of the 216 schools in Dubai, 82 are public schools and 134 are private schools, and the response rate was found to be 95 per cent for private schools and 78 per cent for public schools,” revealed the DHA survey.
It said, “Of the schools surveyed, it was found that 54 per cent of the students across the 216 schools are Emiratis, 24 per cent are Asians and 9 per cent are Arabs and Westerners.”

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