Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 23 May 2019

Sharjah pupils cook up plan for a healthier lunch break

National school competition uncovers new ways to reduce the number of overweight children in the UAE

Khawla Bin Thalaa’ba School pupils in Sharjah have won a Ministry of Education competition to implement health eating changes in their school. Courtesy: MoE    
Khawla Bin Thalaa’ba School pupils in Sharjah have won a Ministry of Education competition to implement health eating changes in their school. Courtesy: MoE    

Health-conscious school pupils in Sharjah are transforming their lunchtime - by ditching crisps and sweets and making the classroom break more sociable.

In an effort to improve their physical and mental wellbeing, learners at Khawla Bin Thalaa’ba School are calling for a healthier variety of foods to be introduced to the menu and more seating areas to allow friends to dine together.

They are doing their bit to address high rates of childhood obesity in the country with the help of school staff.

The show of pupil power hasn't gone unnoticed, with the school named as one of three winners of a Ministry of Education competition challenging 150 schools across the country to come up with ideas on how children can eat better during the day.

“I have been in the UAE for two years teaching and I thought this programme was a very valuable way to tackle this issue,” said Naila Aidarus, a teacher at Khawla Bin Thalaa’ba School.

“The impression it made on the students was remarkable, as most of them did not know what healthy eating was or what it means to have a healthier lifestyle.”

Three major issues were highlighted by the Sharjah pupils, who took their concerns to the school principal to ask for change.

Research by sixth grade children found chocolate, crisps and sweets were often brought into school, and long queues in the school’s canteen left little time for children to eat their meals.

Limited seating areas also meant friends rarely got the chance to sit together during meal times.

Children now have a special room where they can gather to eat their breakfast and lunch.

“The competition was a huge step for the students,” said Ms Aidarus.

“I hope to see the program continuing in the years to come and to expand wider than just the sixth grade.

“I believe all students in the UAE would benefit from it.”

The Arla FoodMoovers competition launched in Dubai in February 2018 as a pilot scheme at Dubai British School.

Since December, UAE schools have been researching and collecting knowledge about their food and mealtime habits at home and school.

That information helped develop solutions to create healthier food habits.

During the final event, the top three schools presented their ideas, with students from Khawla Bint Thalaa’ba School winning the overall competition and a trip to Legoland in Dubai.

Childhood obesity is a growing trend in the developed world, due to changing lifestyle habits and unhealthy eating.

Researchers at the University of Colorado published a 2018 study of 177,000 people that linked lack of sleep, skipping breakfast, fast food and sugar with obesity.

Health authorities in the UAE estimate as many as 40 per cent of children are either overweight or obese.

World Health Organisation figures show 41 million children under the age of five also fall into the overweight or obese category.

Khawla Bin Thalaa’ba school has taken on the children’s suggestions, by creating several lines in the canteen so pupils are served faster, and have more time to eat.

Special lessons were also dedicated to learn about the importance of a balanced diet, while a What’s App group was started to share ideas and encourage each other to make healthier choices.

Although pupils can choose from a menu set by the Ministry of Education, they have asked for more healthy choices to be included in future.

I have noticed a difference in their behaviour and how attentive they are in class.

Afraa Al-Rubaie, health and physical education teacher

Current options are sandwiches on brown bread with salad, fruit and vegetables - but children have asked for a healthier variety of hot meals.

Since learning about healthy eating, crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks are no longer included in packed lunches brought into school.

“The girls mainly bring lunch boxes from home, and they are now choosing healthier food,” said Afraa Al-Rubaie, health and physical education teacher.

“We can’t change the canteen menu as it is set by the ministry of education, but they are eating less chocolate and energy drinks now.

“The children have asked for more choice and we hope this will happen next year.

“I have noticed a difference in their behaviour and how attentive they are in class.

"We eat our meals together and they discuss between them what they will bring in to eat the next day to check it is healthy.”

The other two finalists were Al Doha School, and Al Alfiah School.

“We are committed to the health of our students and good eating habits play a critical role in overall wellbeing, students’ academic performance and intellectual presence,” said Jameela Salem Al Muhairi, minister of state for general education.

“This is a wonderful initiative and a starting point, which empowers students in a fun and educational way to make healthy choices.”

“UAE schools, besides being educational entities, are also working to provide students with the best practices related directly to their daily lives, especially on the subject of nutrition.

“Through multiple awareness activities, we want to instil awareness on the importance of food choices that will reflect positively on their general health.”

Updated: May 15, 2019 09:41 AM

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