Dubai: Healthy eating on the menu at school canteens in new academic year
Caterers are being encouraged to experiment with new recipes
School canteens in Dubai will get an overhaul when the new academic year begins as Dubai Municipality (DM) attempts to make healthy eating more appealing. Caterers and canteen operators are being encouraged to experiment with new recipes to include more fruits, veggies and fibre in the items they sell.
Updated nutrition guidelines keeping in line with international best practices have been introduced to make sure children eat healthily at schools. After two years of Covid-related restrictions, the municipality is hoping to reintroduce several fun initiatives and activities to encourage students to make healthier choices.
“We have sent out invites to schools to inform them of the updated guidelines,” said Jehaina AlAli, Manager of Permits and Applied Nutrition Section at DM. “It is a pilot program that will be gradually introduced at all schools in the emirate.”
Slow and steady
Jehaina admitted that making changes within school canteens has been a long process. “We had to keep in mind how Dubai has multiple cultures and nationalities,” she said. “Also, kids are kids. They don’t eat healthy things just because they are healthy. Healthy food needs to be packaged in an attractive manner to them.”
The entity also wanted to keep all the stakeholders in mind when making changes. “We don’t want to make sweeping changes immediately,” said Jehaina. “When we wanted to reduce the intake of sugary drinks in kids, we reached out to the catering companies and canteen operators and over a period of time, the size of the juice boxes became smaller. We want to make sure that everyone has time to comply with new rules.”
In 2018, DM introduced special characters to promote healthy eating in a fun way. Christened with Arabic names to highlight their qualities, each of the heroes represented the different food groups.
“We even gave them characteristics to make them more appealing to the students,” said Jehaina. “For example, Mufeed, who represents the dairy group, is a bit nerdy. Jameela, who represents fruits is quite the fashionista.”
The result of the character development was that the food heroes became extremely popular, and children started to relate to them. This year, DM is preparing to go all out to bring back the characters to outdoor events. “With the pandemic, we had to scale down everything,” said Jehaina. “This year we are hoping to restart the community outreach program and social media competitions for children. The last time we conducted a competition, the kids came up with very unique ideas which we then compiled into a recipe book. Hopefully, this year as well, we will be able to do something similar.”
Person In Charge (PIC)
Another initiative that has helped DM in making a healthy change in canteens is the Person In Charge (PIC) program. Like all eateries in the city, canteens too have a PIC who is the liaison between the municipality and the school. The PIC undergoes yearly trainings and attends educational sessions to ensure that all food within school premises meets nutrition standards and best practices.
In addition to this, the PIC is required to input details like meal timings, menus and nutritional information of all the food that is served in the Foodwatch app. Based on this and certain other factors, schools are given a health rating by DM.
“Usually, the PIC is from the catering company,” said Jehaina. “However, we are now piloting a program that is encouraging schools to have a secondary PIC who is a school staff. Hopefully, this will help us better integrate our vision for healthy eating in schools.”
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