The recent closure of 35 canteens in Kelantan due to poor hygiene has brought school canteens into public glare again, with parents questioning not only their cleanliness but the quality of food served there. In a two-part series, S. INDRAMALAR and TAN SHIOW CHIN check out our school canteens.
Last week, 35 school canteens in Kelantan were ordered closed by the Health Ministry for failing to comply with basic hygiene and health standards. Part of their Ops Bersepadu Sekolah Sihat campaign, the spot checks were made at 75 primary and secondary schools after more than 100 pupils and a canteen cook in one Semporna district was admitted to hospital with symptoms of cholera.
The cholera outbreak was first detected two weeks ago when the cook at SK Bubul II was rushed to hospital after suffering from fever, diarrhoea and vomiting. As a result, the schools were given 24 hours to clean up their act while the remaining 34 schools were given a little more time – two weeks.
Among the offences – the use of “big ice blocks” to make drinks despite clear guidelines against using them; some of the kitchens were strewn with crockery and utensils; and rubbish bins that were full and overflowing with the waste still not disposed from the previous day.
The team also inspected the school grounds for aedes mosquitoes.
The action against such a large number of schools in one state is alarming to say the least. School canteens must be clean – there can be no compromise as the health of children is at stake.
The situation in Kelantan, however, is not reflective of the overall condition of school canteens, says Abdul Rahman Abdul Rahim, secretary of the Klang Malay Canteen Operators Association.
“Generally, school canteens are very hygienic. There have been very few problems regarding the hygiene of school canteens in the last few years because the ministry has strict guidelines for canteen operators and school authorities to adhere to.
“The problem in this case I think is the attitude of the operators and vendors,” he says.
Sometimes, adds Abdul Rahman, canteens are challenged with problems that are beyond their control, for instance, water cuts or polluted water supply.
“Although this is no excuse, I believe this to be one of the main reasons for the unhygienic conditions of some canteens.
“In fact, I have just returned from Kelantan and I noticed that some operators did not wash their utensils and dishes properly because there was a water shortage and they had limited water to use.
“Of course, responsible operators would go and collect water from elsewhere to use at their
canteen but I noticed this particular operator just rinsed his bowls with the limited and murky water he had.
“This is inexcusable and it is good that action has been taken,” he said.
Clean up or clear out
The Education Ministry has issued all government schools with strict guidelines on school canteens that cover hygiene as well as the quality and price of food that is sold.
The guidelines have an entire section on sanitation alone – the cleanliness of the premises, the attire and appearance of the operators and canteen workers as well as the way food is handled.
Cleanliness and hygiene come under Section 10 and 11 of the 1983 Food Act, which empowers local municipal councils or district health offices to conduct checks on food outlets in their area, including school canteens.
The outlets are marked according to a list of guidelines covered in the Act. A low score will result in closure of the outlet, and reopening is dependent on whether it passes another cleanliness inspection, usually conducted two weeks after the initial check.
While spot checks by the health and education ministry officials are conducted periodically, schools have special committees that come under the purview of the senior assistant (in charge of student affairs) to look into the standards of school canteens.
“We have a committee to look into all issues relating to school canteens, from the cleanliness to the type of food sold. The operators know the guidelines and we are responsible for making sure they adhere to these guidelines.
“We run checks very regularly, a few times a week in fact. Because of this, we have hardly any problems with regards to the canteen or canteen food.
“The spot checks by the education and health ministry as well as the local municipal council are usually carried out once a year and this helps keep the situation under control,” says a senior assistant who declined to be named.
In SJK(C) Lick Hung, senior assistant (student affairs) Ho Lee Lee is the first to have breakfast at school everyday.
“You can say that I 'test' the food every morning. If there is something wrong, I'll be the first to know,” she said.
She and the other teachers give their feedback to the school's canteen operator Eng Wang Heen.
Eng says responsible canteen operators place importance on maintaining high standards of cleanliness, especially since this plays a part in whether or not their contracts are renewed.
“Cleanliness and hygiene are very important. I always make sure that my workers cut their fingernails every two weeks, and we have soap available at all the sinks,” he said.
“My workers always wear aprons, caps and boots while in the canteen and we go for typhoid injections every three years,” says Eng.
The health and hygiene of canteen workers, says president of the National Collaborative Council of Parent-Teacher Associations Assoc Prof Mohd Ali Hassan is one area that though important, is often overlooked.
“School authorities should make it a point to make sure the workers get their immunisation shots regularly,” he says.
According to SJK(C) Lick Hung's headmistress Choo Soo Yin, schools open a tender for operating their canteens every two years.
“We advertise for tenders. First, we get approval from the district education department (PPD), then we send out notices to schools and the PPD to invite interested parties to apply for the contract,” she explains.
Those interested in tendering for the contract have to submit documents showing their previous experience in running a canteen or food outlet, the menu they intend to sell and the proposed prices for the menu.
The canteen operator is only allowed to sell items on the menu that have been approved by the school or PPD at the proposed price in the tender, saysChoo.
After the closing date, a selection committee consisting of the school's headmaster, senior assistant (student affairs) and a representative from the PPD will go over all the tenders and decide which one gets the contract.
The successful canteen operator runs the school canteen for two years, at the end of which a tender is opened again.
Most of the time, if there are no problems, the contract will be renewed by the selection committee for the incumbent operator. For example, Eng has been running the canteen for the past eight years.
Next week, Star Education looks at how nutritious canteen food is.
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