"Thomas! One Milco orange, one Kit Kat!" A five-dirham note weaved through a mosh pit of prepubescent faces in the school cafeteria at Abu Dhabi's International School of Choueifat. I have vivid, medical-equipment coloured memories of the verboten candy floss sold just beyond the gates after school, too: unsavoury-looking men in shabby grey robes held buoyant shocks of confection-filled balloons into which they exhaled regularly, keeping them pert and afloat.
Across the concrete courtyard was the snack counter run by Babu, merchant of munchies by morning, lab tech by afternoon. When a mercury thermometer exploded into his eye one day, temporarily incapacitating Babu and rendering the shop clerkless for a week, students were mournful, congregating outside the locked shop, spinning dirhams in the dust and speculating on Babu's condition. By the time he returned, sporting a pirate patch, he had reached legendary status - and so had the popularity of Quavers and Emirates Pofaki. Those were long days; many of us bought something daily from Babu without questioning the soundness of our junk-food consumption habits.
As for hot, non-packaged food at Choueifat, there were two distinct options. The first, available to all, was manna from heaven, otherwise known as manakish, or Lebanese sandwiches, delivered by the incomparable Lebanese Flower Bakery. For almost 10 years, my midmorning snack never varied: an akawi cheese sandwich, the bread yeasty and charred, its contents molten and gooey with cheese and the rapidly melting Twix bar I shamelessly folded within. The daily challenge was to eat the cheese and chocolate bombe before it had a chance to leave evidence spattered all over my white shirt and shoes.
Besides the takeout cafeteria and snack counter at Choueifat, the furtive, quasi-exclusive "hot lunch" programme was available to local students. It consisted of family-style dishes, such as biryani, made on the premises. Due to a combination of poor ventilation and the indiscriminate use of cardamom, hot lunch could usually be smelled throughout the corridors for the remainder of the day. Although I never had the pleasure of eating the hot lunch, I lusted after it. And although the notion of a lunch service marketed to locals did not seem deviant at the time, in retrospect it seems rather illiberal.
My eating schedule of daily caloric torpedoes and olfactory spice bazaar may sound like an exotic jubilee of the senses, but I'm fairly sure it wreaked havoc on my sinuses, did nothing to help me lose my baby fat, and was void of the vitamins and minerals required to keep me happy and focused all day. How did I manage for so long when left to my own impulsive devices? Like most schoolchildren, I probably didn't. Or at least, not as well as I might have managed on a balanced school lunch.
Last month, I researched school lunch programmes in public and private schools in the US. What children are eating should be of critical significance to all of us, including those of us who aren't parents and who may not at first find school-related or child-related health issues to be of immediate interest or relevance. These are imperative issues, and not just in the realm of nutritional epidemiology. Healthful habits are formed when we are young, and young people, when left to a combination of whim and intuition, aren't wired for making wise decisions about nourishment.
Although there appears to be some debate as to whether or not Attention Deficit Disorder is related to diet and whether an excessively sugary diet can ravage a child's attention span and educational performance, it is inarguable that when it comes to food, training and values begin at home. But some children's home kitchens and dinner tables fail them, and that's when school lunches can make all the difference in the world. If schools are to provide any food at all, is it not their responsibility to provide food that is wholesome? Should governments be putting more effort into well-rounded school lunches? As in the US, childhood obesity and diabetes have become bona fide public health crises in the UAE in recent years.
Unfortunately, it's easier said than done. Offering healthy options isn't enough, and statements I gathered from representatives of state, public and private organisations in the US corroborate one another. Every day is a chance to develop a stronger foundation for our nation's health. School lunch programmes may be one of the UAE's greatest opportunities for affecting the next generation's general health, dietary habits and proclivities. Children who are raised with access to gardens, including school and community gardens, and who have delicious, healthy foods at school tend to adopt better eating habits that last throughout their lives. They also learn that good food tastes better, and that makes all the difference.
In a piece called "French Paradox in the School Cafeteria?" Shanny Peer, the director of policy programs at the French-American Foundation writes: "Physicians, researchers, and calorie-conscious American tourists have noticed for years that French people enjoy delicious, rich food over leisurely four-course meals without ever seeming to gain weight." Peer outlines the disparity in obesity rates, but none of her revelations are as stunning as this: with costs shared by parents and local governments, French schools spend nearly three times more than American schools per child for higher quality meals.