It’s 1.30am on September 5 and the 5,000 square foot kitchen of the school canteen operator Slices is at its busiest. The early morning shift of the 24-hour operation in Al Quoz 4, Dubai, has some 20 staffers, of a total strength of 220, going about their tasks.
Executive chef Gee Mears is on top of the game as she caters to a tall order. By 4am, the hot kitchen alone must churn out 15,000 meals covering 40 dishes. They include 150 litres of lentil soup, 600 portions of chicken and vegetable lasagne and 1,000 pieces of strawberry compote. Equally, the cold kitchen must prepare 37 items that cover everything from cheese salad (400 portions) to halloumi wraps (350 pieces).
By 4.30am, the shift supervisors have checked every single item for its weight, taste, temperature and a host of other parameters under HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points), the international safety standard under which the kitchen is certified.
There’s another round of supervision when the items are loaded on to 10 temperature-controlled dispatch vehicles. In the next couple of hours, the delivery vans are on the way to their destinations: 20 public and private school canteens in Dubai and five in Sharjah. An additional 25 in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain are also catered to, but from another branch of the kitchen at Saadiyat, where the entire process is replicated.
“We’ve just upgraded the skills of the PICs or Persons in Charge at every school canteen,” said Faisal Al Hammadi, co-founder and managing director of Slices. Thanks to the protocols in place, Slices has consistently cut the mustard during the random municipality inspections, he added.
Jehaina Hassan Al Ali, head of Awareness and Applied Nutrition, Food Safety Department at Dubai Municipality, said: “All schools need to comply with the Dubai Food Code with regard to cooked food, in terms of preparation, transport, storage and display.
“All required permits need to be obtained, including preparation area layout, food catering and lists. Schoolchildren are considered a high-risk segment and vulnerable to food poisoning. Therefore, Dubai Municipality ensures routine inspections.”
Although untoward incidents are rare in UAE school canteens, the recent suspension of a school canteen supplier following the hospitalisation of 30 children due to suspected food poisoning in Al Ain has put school canteens in the spotlight.
With canteens becoming a key source of students’ nutrition, several questions are being raised about who runs them, where, why and how. This despite the stringent laws regulating them.
As things stand, most schools outsource their food supplies, but work closely with the operators to meet their students’ nutritional needs.
Clive Pierrepont of the Taaleem Group, which runs 10 schools in the UAE, said, “All our schools have differing catering requirements. Therefore, we use a variety of caterers to fulfil each school’s individual needs. However, all offerings, ranging from our Michelin-starred chef Gary Rhodes-inspired three-course formal dining lunch at Dubai British School Jumeirah Park, to Slices at JBS and our Raptor’s Nest Café at Raha International School, are healthy, nutritious and wherever possible, organic. The quality and price points are a regular topic at student and parent meetings and feedback is given directly to the caterers.”
At the Indian High School (IHS) too, the food is outsourced.
Dr Ashok Kumar, CEO, said, “The school administration is responsible for the school canteen. We take special care of the quality of food. Around 1,000 students eat in the canteen everyday. Every morning, an in-house team checks the food items delivered by the vendor. Random checks are carried out by senior staff members.”
Joseph Calafato, principal of the Sharjah-based GEMS Wesgreen International School, which also outsources its food supplies, said: “Our student council takes an active role in making suggestions for the menu. We encourage nutritional foods that are fresh.”
The task of keeping the food fresh is a process in itself.
Tewfic Kidess, head of operations at PH7 Catering Services, whose HACCP-certified central kitchen at Nad Al Sheba supplies food to 19 schools, said: “PH7 follows a cook-chill operation, which is the most effective method to distribute food to schools. This method means that the food is cooked in advance and then blast chilled. The process cools freshly cooked food to a temperature of 2 degrees Celsius within 45 minutes. Food is held in industrial refrigerators and later transported to each school in refrigerated and authorised vehicles. Before break time, each PIC reheats the food in a special steam oven. This process ensures that the freshness and taste of the food is well-preserved.”
Kidess added, “PH7 works diligently with each school to define menus and pricing. Our menus are multicultural to match Dubai’s [profile]. They are seasonal and prepared by our qualified nutritionist. Items are carefully chosen to excite students and our dishes are full of hidden goodness. For example, our tomato pasta sauce is full of finely ground vegetables.” Jehaina Al Ali said: “We encourage schools to provide healthy and nutritious foods, but caterers can modify and reformulate recipes to ensure limits (of some ingredients) are not exceeded. They include salt, saturated fats, trans fats and sugar. Foods like jelly, chocolate bars, deep fried foods, soft drinks, high sugary drinks, sweetened cereals, energy drinks fall in the restricted food list under the recently published guidelines. A variety of foods prepared with more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy, beans are encouraged, just as nutritious options for vegetarians.”
When it comes to the menu, pricing remains a contentious issue.
While school canteens maintain they need to cover their costs, they are under constant pressure to lower prices from parents and students who are considered a “captive market” as they cannot go out of the school for their meals.
“I kind of love the canteen food. It is healthy but the prices keep going up,” said Dana Ali of Grade 6 at GEMS Wesgreen. “I would prefer it if the canteen reduced the prices of what they offer,” said Mohammed Hossem of Grade 11 at the same school.
At public schools, the meal prices are fixed by the government at Dh5. They include a main dish with a healthy drink. But in a regular private school, the average meal could cost around Dh12-15. The price could even go up to Dh25 in a premium school, where the meal would include a soup, main course, drink and dessert.
Al Hammadi said, “It is a challenge to balance quality of food against price expectations. We operate for only 160 days in a year but have fixed costs all year through. We have to pay rent to some schools to use their space. A few even take commissions, sometimes up to 20 per cent of our sales. This makes it harder for us to achieve our mission in providing healthy meals.”
He said, “Around 40 to 80 per cent of students eat in canteens every day, depending on the size of the facility, the type of leadership and extent of support.”
Not all school managements have the same views when it comes to canteen food.
At Taaleem, Pierrepont said, “We encourage our students and parents to use to our in-house catering arrangements, as many studies have pointed to the unsafe temperatures that snack boxes transported from home can reach. Unrefrigerated food brought into schools can be a cause of tummy upsets as bacteria will grow rapidly on perishables in the relatively high temperatures we experience in the UAE.”
The Indian High School management sees things differently. As Ashok Kumar said, “We advise parents and students to eat healthy home-cooked food whenever and wherever possible. The canteen should not be a choice over home-cooked meals. Though our canteen serves a variety of healthy options which includes juices, fruits, sandwiches etc, they don’t amount to a wholesome meal for a growing child.”
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Students eat at PH7 Catering Services’ 19 school canteens every day
Food items are prepared daily by Slices which caters to 45 school canteens