Cairo: The Egyptian government has unveiled a plan to change the contents of school meals, offered for free, after food poisoning broke out among schoolchildren in some parts of the country in the last academic year.

The plan includes removing processed cheese from the meals—the suspected culprit behind thousands of food poisoning cases among school children, an education official said.

“The new meal will include 50 grams of enhanced biscuits for each of kindergarten children and 80 grams [of biscuits] to primary school pupils, in addition to pieces of plain and cheese pates and bars of halava [sesame sweets] and cakes stuffed with a date paste,” Randa Halawa, who heads the central department for prevention of dropping out from schools at the Education Ministry, said in media remarks this week.

State-run schools in Egypt’s working-class areas and villages provide free meals for children with the aim of keeping them healthy.

But nearly 5,000 school children suffered symptoms of food poisoning including vomiting during the past school year, according to official figures.

At the time, President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi ordered an investigation into the outbreak.

In March this year, the government suspended the delivery of the meals pending an inquiry and instituting a more efficient supply system.

The problem was reportedly attributed to poor storage of meals but the full findings of the inquiry have yet to be made public.

Some parliamentarians suggested offering cash to pupils instead of the meals—a proposal turned down by the government that is grappling with economic woes.

The new meal system is the result of joint efforts among several ministries, Halawa said.

“Coordination has been arranged among several governmental bodies for overseeing the production and safety standards of these meals. They include the ministries of education, health, social solidarity and supply, in addition to complete and continuing supervision from the Council of Ministries,” she added.

Halawa said that standards of the meals will be vetted by the governmental Food Safety Authority.

“The [education] ministry has decided for the first time to ban the storage of school meals. They will be supplied to schools on a daily basis. Major supply companies will be chosen for this,” the official added without further details.

The new system will be applied in the new school year due to begin in mid-September in Egypt.

The government has allocated 1.1 billion Egyptian pounds (around Dh229 million) for the school food, according to official reports.

An estimated 9 million pupils get access to school meals in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country of around 95 million people.

The system was first introduced in the country in the 1940s and was later suspended due to financial problems.

It was re-introduced in the mid-1990s with the aim of addressing malnutrition among children in poor families and curbing dropping out from schools.