Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 24 March 2018

Emirati entrepreneurs feed 1,000 schoolchildren with healthy meals each day

Founders of organic cafe Slices want to help foster a healthy-eating attitude among children to help combat levels of obesity.

Pupils at Brighton College, Al Ain, from left to right, Dara Hussein, Zoe Claudel and Aliya Davletova wait in line to have their lunch served at the Slices cafeteria. Antonie Robertson / The National
Pupils at Brighton College, Al Ain, from left to right, Dara Hussein, Zoe Claudel and Aliya Davletova wait in line to have their lunch served at the Slices cafeteria. Antonie Robertson / The National

Two Emirati entrepreneurs have decided to use their catering expertise to provide 1,000 healthy meals each day to schoolchildren.

Alarmed by statistics that put the UAE in the top five most overweight countries in the world, cousins Faisal Al Hammadi, 29, and 30-year-old Hamad Al Hammadi are complementing the efforts of Health Authority Abu Dhabi by providing nutritional food to pupils at schools in the capital and Al Ain.

Studies have shown that 66 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women in the UAE are either obese or overweight. The picture is not much better among children, with 40 per cent of 11 to 15-year-olds weighing more than they should.

In 2012, the cousins founded Slices, an organic cafe, with help from the Khalifa Fund, and now the duo aim to give back to the community.

“When we started sharing the concept of providing people with fresh, healthy, cooked meals, we realised that if we really wanted to influence the eating behaviour of people, they need to start at a young age,” said Faisal Al Hammadi.

“We saw that we needed to target children and young people, and that is what encouraged us to approach schools.”

Slices provides meals to several schools, including Brighton College Al Ain, Cranleigh School Abu Dhabi, Repton Abu Dhabi and Zayed University. Parents who wish their children to have the meals have to pay for them in either daily, monthly or annual packages, and this is separate from school fees.

The meals consist of fruit and vegetables, whole-grain products, good fat sources and chicken, meat and fish.

Hamad said that Slices had not been established purely for financial gain but also to act as a socially responsible business that gave something back to the community.

“We do believe that this market is underserved and that it can be a lucrative endeavour, however, this is about social responsibility,” he said. “Schools are where we’re going to have our children go, and that is exactly where we can improve their whole diet and make an impact.”

Dr Malin Garemo is a children’s dietician who worked closely with Slices to develop school meals that meet both Abu Dhabi and international standards when it comes to calories and nutrients for children.

She said: “Research shows that when children are exposed to healthy food from an early age, they are more likely to continue eating healthy when they’re teenagers and into adulthood.

“Establishing healthy habits from the beginning will make it easier for children to stick to a healthy lifestyle but, when they are eating unhealthy, it becomes more challenging to eat healthy as they grow older.”

Obesity is linked to diabetes – a condition that already affects one Emirati in five – as well as heart disease and a range of other life-altering conditions. Evidence also suggests that overweight children are more susceptible to bullying and to long-term mental-health problems.

Dr Garemo said that the whole concept of healthy eating had to stay upbeat and interesting to children.

“It is one thing to speak about whole grain and fibre in food but it is also important to make the food attractive to children and appealing to their tastes,” she said. “We expose them to food that they’re familiar with and other food that they are not so familiar with.”

She also said that children who ate a nutritional breakfast, snack and lunch tended to concentrate more in classes, boosting their academic performance.

“There is a mostly young population in Abu Dhabi but a high number of young people either have diabetes or are prone to develop the disease or other weight-related diseases,” said Dr Garemo, adding that good nutrition can also prevent vitamin D and iron deficiencies.

“It is important that food, play and physical activities are part of the school curriculum, complementing the other things being taught in school,” said Dr Garemo. “We cannot expect children to listen quietly in class if they are being served crisps, chocolates and soda.”

Abu Dhabi Government has set new health and nutrition guidelines, and suggested schools all over the country follow them in an attempt to tackle childhood obesity.

“Slices is not just about the food aspect, it’s about raising awareness,” said Hamad.