DUBAI // Fried meals and food high in sugar or salt will be off the menu for pupils at government schools as new health guidelines are introduced by the Ministry of Education this month.
Processed food, including all types of fries, crisps and chocolates, will be replaced by healthier options such as fruit and vegetables in all Dubai and the Northern Emirates state schools.
Aiming to address bad nutrition habits among young people, the ministry has issued a 15-page guidebook that details how schools must choose caterers, the type of food they can sell and how it must be stored.
"We have asked all the education zones to give us the names of the suppliers so that we can carefully scrutinise them according to the guidelines," said Aisha Alsiri, director of nutrition and school health at the ministry.
"So far, most of the companies supplying to the schools have not had enough knowledge on nutrition, so we have had to spell it out with this."
Caterers who fail to adjust their menus will be dismissed from service, Ms Alsiri said.
Fried potatoes, processed meat, ice cream, chocolate, jelly and chewing gum are all banned, but falafel or cheese sandwiches are allowed if prepared in whole-grain or brown bread.
Cereals with no added sugar and skimmed, low-fat and soy milk can also be sold. Carbonated and energy drinks cannot be sold, and flavoured water is also banned.
Ms Alsiri said the ministry was encouraging schools to stock up on fresh juice, fruit and dates instead.
The ministry will begin inspections from next month on canteen conditions and the food available.
"Despite the guidelines some schools still sell them, so we have to inspect them from time to time," Ms Alsiri said.
The guidebook states schools may receive delivery of food between 8am and 9.30am. Suppliers must transport the food in well-insulated vehicles and the school canteen supervisor must check it to ensure it is fresh and well packed.
All packaging must now contain the name of the product, expiry date and contents.
Sandwiches and salads may not contain too many spices and cannot be prepared with hot sauces, manufactured preservatives, colouring agents, sweeteners or other chemical substances.
A lack of clear guidelines and improper canteen facilities had contributed to poor nutrition choices among pupils, says Dr Naz Awan, a lecturer in education at the British University in Dubai.
Dr Awan conducted a study in 13 schools in 2010 and last year, funded by the Emirates Foundation, and concluded that food sold in canteens was not correctly labelled and was high in fat.
"Schools did not have the ability to store fresh food, or any proper cold storage," she said. "Because of that, schools were bulk buying items that have more additives."
Ms Alsiri said the ministry was aware of the storage problem and would provide better equipment.
Principals interviewed by Dr Awan said that even if they did buy fresh food and milk-based drinks, they would not be able to sell them.
Dr Awan believes ensuring healthier eating habits will not end in replacing junk food. She said more lessons in nutrition were required, including education about portion sizes.
Nijat F, principal of the Hind Bin Maktoum primary school in Dubai, said the school would like to introduce such classes.
"We have programmes for obese children where we encourage them to eat more fruit and vegetables," Ms Nijat said.
"We also send letters to parents advising them not to pack junk food but we still have to address the problem of overeating."
Nadia Fayez, an Emirati mother of two boys at the Al Watan School in Umm Al Quwain, said chocolates had been available in their canteen until last year.
"They are not selling chips either," said Ms Fayez. "This is a good move but I would like them to introduce fruit as well."
She said she gave her children Dh4 to buy sandwiches and juice every day.
"I also think they must provide more variety," Ms Fayez said. "The boys have a cheese sandwich every day."