As the UAE introduces new health and nutrition guidelines for school meals, Catering News ME spoke to some of the leading providers to establish their challenges today.
Schools across the UAE must follow strict new health and nutrition guidelines in providing school meals in a bid to tackle childhood obesity.
With the new rules coming into effect from the start of the new term, Dr Wafa Ayesh, director of clinical nutrition at the Dubai Health Authority (DHA), says: “All schools must ensure they follow detailed guidelines to ensure suppliers and school canteens provide healthy foods.
“The move is to ensure all children across government and private schools are provided with nutritious food that is needed for their growth and well-being and so that children inculcate healthy eating habits early on.
“The DHA is part of the UAE School Specification for Healthy Foods Committee [alongside the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, Dubai Municipality, and Health Authority Abu Dhabi (HAAD), as well as universities] that has worked extensively to implement guidelines across schools.”
With inspectors, working on behalf of the committee, set to visit schools to ensure they are serving good quality meals and snacks, Catering News ME spoke to a number of mass catering suppliers to schools to see what the current trends, developments and challenges are.
At its peak Accuro Specialist Support Services provided catering to 36 schools with a total population of 90,000 students. Giles Dale, Accuro managing director, said: “With a significant increase in the number of private schools, particularly in the premium sector, more focus is being placed on food safety, quality and the need for developing healthy eating habits in children. Schools are starting to realise that there is a broader responsibility in the community to develop healthy eating habits in young people.
“Also, there must be a shift from the retail focused market where the student decides whether to buy and what to buy at the point of consumption as opposed to pre-paid meal programmes where the buying decision is made in advance and a nutritionally balanced meal can be assured.
“Only if the pre-paid meal programme is implemented will we see a significant increase in demand for healthy school dinners, and this will have a positive effect on our business,” he added.
Dale argues that a consolidation of the market is also needed: “We must move away from a retail approach to a pre-paid meal programme system and strict controls on food safety systems to ensure that all providers have made sufficient investments in infrastructure, processes and people. This would help achieve consolidation in the market and an improvement in standards.”
Dale agrees that the school catering is very fragmented with a large number of small operators. “It is therefore very competitive with a lack of scale,” he suggests.
BiteRite was one of the first in the business to focus on healthy mass food catering, and today it caters to ten schools in Abu Dhabi and Dubai combined. Seema Shetty, the founding director of BiteRite, says: “We are proud to have associated with HAAD, ADEC [Abu Dhabi Education Council] and the FCA [Federal Customs Authority] to bring healthy food to schools. These agencies have done a commendable job in execution of visionary goals and regulations for the betterment of health. We also commend them for collaborating with each other on this initiative, as we can imagine it to be a Herculean task.
“We have worked actively with all the agencies involved in providing a considerably high list of menu items, as per the definition of healthy food for school children. Our panel of nutritionists and doctors have screened through the recipes to understand what ingredients and foods should work, and we have been able to put together a menu based on sound science.
“Today our key challenge is providing good, healthy, wholesome foods to children within the price band and the list of approved products. To list products as approved, understandingly, takes time. However constant innovation and introduction of new products goes a long way in ensuring that students are enthusiastic about consuming healthy food.”
Shetty suggests that BiteRite entered the business of school meal provision as an educational initiative. She adds: “We can impact the future eating habits of young leaders of tomorrow, thereby contributing to improving at least 60% of their journey towards a healthy life. Catering to this segment is a natural fulfilment towards our vision of a healthier generation, and our mission of making healthy food available everywhere.”
Chef Achint Kakkar at BakeRite adds: “There are more and more players coming into the foray but how they actually perform when it comes to offering healthy options is what parents and schools should be aware of, especially regarding the regulation of levels of salt, sugar, and whole meal and the methods of preparation used.”
Having provided school meals for eight years, and most recently for GEMS schools, Samer Harkous, business development executive at CityChef, also confirms that the price point is a crucial divider today. He says: “Price versus expectations is our key challenge. Many schools opt to run the canteen themselves, with the aim of buying from the caterer at a low price and then adding their own margin before selling on to the students . They demand quality and nutritious food and expect to pay a low price for the same. Competition here is intense as many catering companies are capable of producing for schools.”
Speaking about the latest initiative of the UAE School Specification for Healthy Foods Committee, and the growing interest in nutritional and healthy foods, led by government directives, Harkous says: “The government here seems to be moving to enforce healthy and nutritious foods to be served at schools. Although this has little impact on us as we tend to push the health drive from our end as well.
“We also use a software that provides you with all the nutritional details of all the food items. For example, if we input the ingredients of any sandwich, salad, meal or dessert, the system will automatically break it down for us and give details of all the fat, protein, carbs and sugars.”
On menu design, Chef Kakkar adds: “Our team of expert chefs design a menu based on feedback from students, schools and, in some cases, parents. Menu development is based on the ingredients that have been approved by our nutritionist. Each recipe formulation goes to our highly qualified and experienced nutritionist for approval. The nutritionist decides if the recipe will work and provides the portion size and calorie count, etc.”
He adds: “ADEC in Abu Dhabi has made it mandatory for school canteens to offer menus that are approved by ADEC and the same applies to schools in Dubai. The lifestyle of children in UAE is predominantly sedentary and makes them more susceptible to health disorders such as obesity, so the demand for healthy meals certainly exists.
“The need of the hour is to make the children realise the importance of healthy eating. Introducing healthy well balanced meals at an early age makes the children realise the importance of eating right. We intend to continue with our commitment of providing wholesome meals to schools even in the future. The trend for healthy, nutritious meals is here to stay.”
Furthermore, Shetty believes that the growing involvement of the government in legislating the diet and wellbeing of children has increased demand for BiteRite’s services. She adds: “We are able to succeed in entering schools only because of government legislations. Before that we were knocking on closed doors because of administrators comfort with their current systems and suppliers and also lack of concerns towards this issue.
“The interest and need was highlighted and taken nationwide only because of the commitment of the Government and we are happy that their focus is to also enter other segments of the food industry making operators more responsible to the impact of their products.
“The emirate of Dubai is also working on a similar model. We are extremely thankful to them and also admire them for engaging us in collecting feedback and industry expertise in devising a successful unique model.”