ABU DHABI // Chips are out, fruit is in - and parents have thrown their collective weight behind a new ban on junk food in school canteens in the capital. Authorities ordered all schools in the emirate - state and private - to stop selling crisps, burgers, chocolate and sugary drinks at the start of the school year. Shawarma, ice cream and energy drinks are also banned.
Latifa al Hosani, the principal at Al Asael, a school for girls, said the move had already produced some benefits. "Many things have changed, but it positively affects education," she said. "They are able to concentrate more in class without having that sugar rush and drop." At Al Asael and other schools in the capital the ban has been accompanied by science lessons that include guidance on nutrition and healthy eating habits.
Even schools that do not offer meals have been working to enforce the new rules, which were drawn up by the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority in consultation with the Abu Dhabi Education Council and Health Authority-Abu Dhabi. The Sunrise English private school in Musaffah, whose students bring their own lunches, wrote to parents before the term began to inform them which foods are allowed. Teachers now monitor packed lunches to make sure they are healthy, said C Inbanathan, the school's principal.
But not all educators have welcomed the changes. One principal, who did not want to be named, said the rules were too rigid. His school had been forced to stop serving salads, because the ban covers salad dressings, he said. "What will the kids eat? Pastries are not enough for them," he said. "When you forbid them from doing something they will go around it and do it anyway. They bring food from home, order from outside or go to cafeterias before school starts and have a breakfast there."
He said the new regulations make it more difficult to work with food suppliers. "Cafeterias won't take our contract. They are saying it's not worth it because there are so many items they can't provide and there isn't enough demand." While nutritionists have applauded the rules, they stressed the need to get parents involved. "Within two to three months you'll be able to see a difference in the weight of kids, and in their activity," said Hala Abu Taha, a Dubai-based nutritionist and dietician.
"But that doesn't mean the family should give their children junk food every day to compensate. Usually the issue is junk food, and with the sodium levels that comes with it the body gets used a certain level and tries to demand and ask for more." For their part, many parents have been supportive of the ban. "This is a very healthy decision, I'm with it 100 per cent," said Manoj Unithan, a father who has two children enrolled in the Private International English School in Musaffah. "Lunch is a proper meal, there isn't room for shortcuts."
Mr Unithan, along with other parents with children at the school, received a leaflet encouraging him to rethink his children's lunches. "This year I've been sending them in with vegetarian snacks," said S Sajim, whose children also attend the Musaffah-based school. "Before I'd pack them samosas, now it's all vegetarian. I changed it because of the new school guidelines, but also because it's better for their health. The food can sit in their lunch boxes for five or six hours, and with non-vegetarian food, that can be bad."
Some students, however, said they had seen little change in their lunchboxes. "We always have grapes, nectarines, sometimes sandwiches," said a seven-year-old at the Gems American School - Abu Dhabi. "It gives me a bit more energy. If I have a little sugar, I'm hyper right away, but it takes a lot of fruit for me to feel hyper." Others have found ways around the menu alterations. "I don't normally eat at school," said Ahmed, a 13-year-old. "So now if I want something, I'll bring a snack. I'm still having chocolate, chips or juice."
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