Monday, July 19, 2010

Can't we do something about the canteen?

AN errant canteen operator at a school I know will not have his contract extended next year for repeatedly flouting the food preparation and hygiene guidelines set by the school board.

For the past year and a half, the school's canteen committee has been lenient on and accommodating to the operator, who gave various excuses.

Repeated advice to improve has fallen on deaf ears. When a dead lizard in the sambal of a student's meal came to the attention of the principal, the school board decided not to renew the contract when it ends this year.

Cases of school canteens not serving nutritious food are not new. Those whose food handling hygiene is suspect often go undetected until mass food poisoning makes the news. Go around the city schools and do a surprise check if you want to see the mockery that some canteen operators are making of the guidelines set by the authorities.

From what I gather, schools monitor their own canteens' cleanliness through a committee comprising teachers and students.

Because the school board does not have the power to fire, even if the canteen operator is caught red-handed flouting health and food preparation regulations, the school boards can only advise them and perhaps notify the Education Ministry for further action.

Maybe the process of awarding of contracts to canteen operators should be tightened. At present, the Education Ministry calls for tenders for canteen operations. Maybe it is time the schools and their PTAs be allowed to do so, at least in city schools. After all, who understands the students' needs better than their teachers and parents?

At one school I know, the canteen operator often cites the lack of profitability as an excuse for the monotonous menu and unpalatable food he serves. It is an open secret that some school canteen operators have more than one contract, with each canteen run by a proxy under a different company name. It is not too difficult to know how much profit a canteen operator makes, if you ask me, what more those that serve food of substandard quality.

But why should our children pay the price for the actions of unscrupulous canteen operators who give scant attention to food preparation and quality?

Aren't there canteen inspectors to conduct surprise checks to weed out unhygienic practices and make sure that the guidelines and conditions for the awarding of contracts are adhered to -- and to penalise those found guilty, or even blacklist and bar them from future contract applications?

Canteen operation is not a gold mine, a former operator tells me.

It comes with a heavy responsibility. One cannot operate a canteen business blinded by profit, although the captive market allows one to take advantage of the situation quite unnoticed.

Our children spend one-third of their 11 years of education at school. When they are hungry or thirsty, the canteen is their first venue of choice.

And if the canteen operator cannot even provide clean premises and palatable, affordable food, we should do something about it.

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