Food vending machines at schools: Idea ‘indigestible’

JEDDAH: Fouzia Khan

Published — Monday 6 May 2013

Last update 12 May 2013 7:23 am

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The Ministry of Education is studying the possibility of replacing school canteens with vending machines, sparking outrage among educators who say the move may affect the health of schoolchildren.
“The move is still under consideration; we will begin by piloting the project in a select number of schools in Riyadh,” Mohammad Al-Dekhaini, spokesman of the ministry, told Arab News. “We have already contracted companies to provide this service to a small number of schools in the capital and we will gradually expand the project to encompass all schools in the Kingdom at a later stage.” He said that the project is still under review and trial to determine its impact on the educational system.
Many teachers have said they oppose the move, citing health concerns as the primary reason behind their objection.
“School canteens provide fresh food that is tailored to students’ taste and health,” said Sadiya Kaleem, principal of Al-Hukma International School in Jeddah. “Some students stay in school for long hours due to extracurricular activities. They prefer to eat sandwiches and satisfying meals that will provide them with energy for the rest of the school day. If the ministry installs these vending machines, how much food will the children be able to purchase and what kind of snacks will they have access to? More importantly, will the food be healthy? I don’t believe this is a wise idea.”
She also pointed out that the vending machines might pose a problem for children between the ages of 4 and 5, as they could face difficulty operating the machines. In addition, she indicated that there might be technical drawbacks,
“When 300-400 students press the vending machine buttons every day, will the machines not wear out?” she asked.
The issue of children eating in a school cafeteria or from a vending machine has long been a controversial topic in other countries since a large portion of a child’s daily food intake occurs at school. Generally, schools have better control over a child’s diet by serving specific healthy foods for breakfast, lunch and afterschool snacks. There is less control when a child chooses to eat food from a vending machine.
According to the US Center for Disease Control, food from vending machines do not meet the country’s stated nutritional requirements. In addition, vending machine food is considered “competitive foods” because they compete against school meals.
Eating vending machine food may increase incidences of childhood obesity.
In Saudi Arabia, for example, 50 percent of all children in the Eastern Province suffer from obesity. The onset of obesity begins between the ages of 10 and 14, according to a Saudi study conducted by S.S. Al-Dossary.
More boys than girls between the ages of 14 and 18 suffered from obesity, according to the study.
Aasia Kamyab, a librarian, said machines will not provide a variety of food options, which are currently available at school canteens.
“The Ministries of Education and Health have already removed junk food from school canteens, so this is a flop idea,” said Kamyab.
She also said that the ministry should monitor the cleanliness and hygiene standards of school cafeterias instead of implementing this move if the aim is to ensure students’ health.
Salwa Kadri, another teacher at a local school, also rejected the idea.
“These machines will not work in schools,” Kadri said. “Children will get bored quickly and besides, youngsters need healthy meals to nourish their minds and bodies. School canteens have banned unhealthy food. Children no longer have access to chips, carbonated drinks or any type of junk food, so what will these machines offer? Not meals for sure.”
Aya Abdul Hai, a high school student, also refused the idea of vending machines in schools for similar reasons, stating limited food choices have no appeal for her.

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