Healthy Eating: Schools Need To Create 'Right Environment'

Healthy Eating: Schools Need To Create 'Right Environment'
By C Hoppe
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Last week, the UAE's Federal National Council announced that a blanket healthy food policy is soon to be introduced in both government and private schools across the emirates.

The new directive will outlaw all unhealthy food in schools and promote nutritious, healthy eating for all students.

The law, is another in a long succession of initiatives implemented by the government as part of the five year national nutrition strategy. In 2013, a pilot project by Abu Dhabi Health Services Company Seha, draft in assistance from UNICEF in a bid to tackle childhood obesity. The scheme saw school nurse led discussions on healthy eating. In July 2014 the 'Your Child in Gold' project was launched in the hope that parents would encourage their children's weight-loss in return for gold.

The UAE is not the first country to attempt addressing childhood obesity and improved nutrition via school lunch programmes, and this means there's a wealth of research available on how best the system can be approached and implemented with the best possible outcome. took a look at a recent report by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the US, which observed the cafeteria variables which both encouraged and inhibited the eating of healthy food among students.  The results are to be honest, both illuminating and depressing in equal measure, and prove that for any initiative like this to work, there has to be significant additional input at both the parents, individual school and policy making levels.


The Setting Plays An Important Part 

The very recent study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the US, found cafeteria variables play a far more significant role in the success of any school nutrition programme than previously thought.

The study saw researchers observe the eating habits of 274 children in 10 New York City public schools. The students were in kindergarten through second grade. 

Susan M. Gross, PhD, MPH, a research associate in the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said, "As much as we are focused on menus in the school lunch program, we need to look more at our cafeteria environments, especially with our youngest children."


What Researchers Found...

Interestingly, researchers discovered several significant variables determined how much the children ate-

  • They ate more when a teacher was present eating with them
  • Children ate more vegetables and whole grains if the noise in the canteen was reduced, (although interestingly, noise levels did not affect consumption of other food groups.)
  • Children also tended to eat more healthy choices if food was presented in smaller pieces
  • Children ate more 'healthy foods' when the lunch break was longer


Children Eat Better With Adults

Various studies have shown that eating with children not only build rapport and allows an impromptu and informal opportunity to discuss nutrition, good eating habits and food as well as keeping cafeteria noise levels down.

One Dubai teacher said, "I eat in the staff-room unless its my 'duty day' then I'm in the cafeteria walking around checking the kids. A lot of teachers eat with their kids as a reward. I do too, but it all only happens about once per month. Some days lunch is literally the only 40 min when I don't have students. Maybe it's just because I have young ones, but they are so needy I just need that time away from them."

But there are more than just teachers invested in schools. If it's not possible for them to eat with children, how about teaching assistants or even a rota of parents? Not only would this allow for nutritional dialogue and closer inspection of what the children are eating and more importantly, not eating, but it would also keep noise levels down.


Smaller More Palatable Sizes

Here in the UAE it's imperative that parents and carers be educated, involved and inspired when it comes to preparing and shopping for packed lunches. Letting children choose their fruit and vegetables is a simple and easy step. As too is encouraging more vegetables in the form of salads, vegetables for dipping and finger foods.

As one Dubai teacher tells us, "I regularly see packed lunches which are cold KFC and kids just buying popcorn and a juice box from the cafeteria. How can that possibly sustain them through the day?"


Meanwhile in France...

In France where childhood obesity levels are low (under 10%) school children eat a daily two hour- four course, set-menu lunch. There is only one option, and if the kids don't like it, there's nothing else!

While here in the UAE we often hear of lunch breaks so short kids don't actually get to finish their food, (15 to 35 minutes) before evacuating the canteen to make way for the next batch of diners. Or even worse, those who don't even make it to the canteen and remain seated at their desks to eat.

"Why do schools in the UAE give such a short lunch period? My girls often come back with food uneaten in their lunchboxes, when i ask them they say they did want it, but didn't have time to eat it all," says Hibba, mum of two.

One of the fundamental issues seems to be inadequate cafeteria size for the number of students enrolled.  However, with the profit driven school model, short of KHDA regulation, the situation seems unlikely to change.

Kathryn Henderson, PhD, Director of School and Community Initiatives at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity says,"We can give kids the healthiest food possible, but if they don't have time to eat it or they are distracted by how noisy the cafeteria is, they're not going to eat it. They're on their own and we need to do as much as possible to help them through that lunch period."

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