Managing School Cafeterias: Ensuring Healthy Safe Food for Students
Head of the School Canteens Management Department at the Ministry of Education and Higher Education, Mr. Hamad Al Rumaihi, confirmed the ministry’s intention to supply independent school students with healthy meals during the second semester. As part of the move towards healthier foods, whole-wheat flour or brown flour is being used instead of white flour in the preparation of sandwiches and baked goods provided to students, as it contains more nutrients, including fiber.
Mr. Al Rumaihi also pointed out that follow-ups and inspection visits are carried out by the ministry and the Canteen Inspection Department. Around 400 inspections have been recorded in the first semester of the current academic year.
All public-school canteens are now completely free from all types of chocolate, crisps, soda or fizzy drinks, processed meat, fried food, sweets and confectionery. It is strictly prohibited to have any of these types of foods in school canteens as they harm the health of our children, the students. However, because diets should be balanced, canteens can offer snacks such as biscuits and cakes once a week, as long as they adhere to certain nutritional specifications and to not exceed 200 calories per serving.
The Canteen Section of the Department of Common Services at the Ministry of Education and Higher Education also oversees the packaging of food presented to students. Plastic bags used for baked goods and sandwiches should be approved by health authorities to ensure that these bags can bear a temperature of 60°C and above. There are strict rules for this and a quality certificate must be provided. This is to avoid plastic dissolving and posing a risk to students’ health. Alternatively, greaseproof paper packaging can be used.
When it comes to pricing, the ministry decrees that school canteens should be affordable for everyone. Prices of food items in primary schools range between 1 and 3 riyals, and in middle and high schools range between 1 and 5 riyals, and full meals can be priced at 5 riyals.
Mr. Al Rumaihi also pointed to the fact that there are 60 different varieties of food on offer to students, from sandwiches and pies, to salads, whole fruits and vegetables, milk and milk products, as well as juices (made from 50% concentrated fruit juice). The ministry has contracted 21 restaurants and suppliers to provide meals to students on a daily basis. These food facilities and school canteens are inspected by the Ministry of Municipality, with oversight from the Department of Environmental Health and the Ministry of Health. There is great interest on the part of the Ministry of Education, in collaboration with other stakeholders, to provide healthy meals for school students. 192 schools receive meals at a state level for the three stages of education.
A number of conditions and criteria must be met by the suppliers. These have been developed by the Standing Committee for School Canteens. They include holding a business license; premises that meet the conditions required for the preparation, processing and supplying of meals and health standards activity; a dedicated transportation to deliver food; health certificates for all employees in food preparation that prove they are not carrying any infectious diseases; adhering to the types of food allowed and not allowed; packaging the food appropriately and in a healthy way to ensure its safety; the provision of a sufficient number of male workers to boys schools and female workers to girls schools and official uniforms at work, including health gloves and hair nets; and to maintain cleanliness and provide healthy meals—especially to students with diabetes—accredited by the commission at the Ministry of Education and Higher Education.
Mr. Al Rumaihi pointed out that schools play an important role in maintaining food safety through a school-appointed committee for the daily supervision and follow-up of canteens and the inspection of food items. The committee communicates with the School Canteen Department in case of any issues. The role of canteens inspectors is to periodically visit the schools and inspect the food, in addition to handing out fines and penalties in case of breach of contract, in order to preserve the safety of the students and ensure a healthy school environment.