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Junk-food ban in Abu Dhabi schools begins to bite

The Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority ordered all schools to stop selling junk food six months ago, with surprising results.

January 12, 2011 / Abu Dhabi / (Rich-Joseph Facun / The National) Ibrahim A. Al Ali , (CQ), an Inspector with the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, second from left, and Mansour A. Abd El Latif (CQ), center, a Senior Inspector with the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority inspect the school cafeteria of the Emirates National School as part of an ongoing campaign, Wednesday, January 12, 2011 in Abu Dhabi.
January 12, 2011 / Abu Dhabi / (Rich-Joseph Facun / The National) Ibrahim A. Al Ali , (CQ), an Inspector with the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, second from left, and Mansour A. Abd El Latif (CQ), center, a Senior Inspector with the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority inspect the school cafeteria of the Emirates National School as part of an ongoing campaign, Wednesday, January 12, 2011 in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // Six months after the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority ordered all schools to stop selling junk food, some students say vegetables have become the best part of lunch.

Last September, the authority banned crisps, burgers, chocolate and sugary drinks from school menus.

Yesterday, 16 inspectors checked school kitchens in search of shawarma, ice cream and energy drinks such as Red Bull. Of the 57 cafeterias inspected, seven were warned for having banned items.

The move is meant to combat the increasing number of pupils suffering from childhood obesity in the UAE. A 2009 Ministry of Health survey of Dubai and the Northern Emirates found that 4.4 per cent of children were morbidly obese, 16.1 per cent were obese, and 32.3 per cent were overweight.

But at Emirates National School, education combined with daily exposure to vegetables had helped students overcome their reservations, said Amaal Tantour, the school's nutritionist.

The school emphasises the importance of healthy living. The trick, Ms Tantour said, was to showcase how versatile vegetables could be.

"Every day, it's done differently," she said, adding that the food is cooked to preserve texture, without spices or salt.

"Vegetables are now my favourite food," said one six-year-old student. "I like it more than chocolate."

In addition to the healthy lunch, students are given a mid-morning snack of sandwiches or manakish. There is an on-site bakery to make the pastries fresh each day. According to Ms Tantour, students need both a snack and a meal to give them enough energy to focus throughout the day.

But despite teachers' best efforts, they realise there is little they can do about what a child eats once he leaves school grounds.

As Hamad happily chowed down on the stew of carrots, beans and potatoes, he said dinner would be macaroni, plain and simple.

"My parents don't give me vegetables at home, but maybe some fruit," the young pupil said.

According to Ms Tantour, while the school tries to educate parents about healthy eating, it also ensures that children get all of the necessary servings of vegetables during the day. The new guidelines mean there is less variety on the menu, so children enjoy their meals more.

"It's the mentality of little kids," said Ms Tantour.

According to Asha, another student, this year's lunch offerings are better than the previous year's.

The inspection was part of larger efforts to ensure that school canteens comply with the authority's food-handling standards, and compulsory training for food-safety employees.

"We need to ensure that canteens follow the regulations and ordinances concerning food safety, and whether suppliers also comply to the new guidelines," said Mohammed al Reyaysa, the communications director for the authority.

The rules were drawn up in conjunction with the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi and the Abu Dhabi Education Council. Some staple items, such as croissants and manakish, were returned to the menu after being banned last year.

mdetrie@thenational.ae