On days when she forgets to cook her lunch, 17-year-old Dalal Erekat has to resort to a few vegetarian options like carrot sticks and tater tots. His school, Valhalla High, has never provided halal appetizers allowed to eat by his Muslim faith.
But her town of El Cajon in eastern San Diego County has a large Muslim community with plenty of Arabic dining options, she says.
“There are a lot of accessible butchers and a lot of restaurants too,” she said. “It’s really not a problem, except at school.”
While this year’s state budget includes free school meals for all students starting in the 2022-2023 school year, California has never asked school districts to offer meals tailored to religious beliefs. students. Muslim students like Erekat were forced to bring meals from home or resort to meager vegetarian offerings from their cafeterias.
“People with different beliefs also need to eat,” she said. “It would be more inclusive. It’s just better this way.
Based on its most recent survey in 2014, the Pew Research Center estimated that 1% of adults in California – about 386,000 people at the time – identified as Muslims. At Valhalla High, Erekat said there were dozens of Muslim students.
Many of her Muslim peers, she said, depend on school meals. On pizza days, students who eat halal must get a slice of cheese pizza. But when the cafeteria lines are long, she said, all that can be left is slices of pepperoni.
“I hardly ever received school meals. There has never been a halal option, ”said Husna Farukhi, a recent high school graduate from Anaheim. “There were always snacks, but obviously they didn’t contain meat. “
Muslims who adhere to a halal diet only eat the meat of animals that have been slaughtered according to Islamic practices. The animal should be humanely killed by a Muslim butcher and a prayer should be recited during the process. Pork and pork products like gelatin are prohibited by the Qur’an.
“I found out that a lot of my classmates who eat halal just went with vegan or vegetarian options,” Farukhi said.
Scott Roark, a spokesperson for the California Department of Education, said districts had “the flexibility to accommodate special meals.” He said it was up to local districts to align their meals with the demographics of their students.
Supply chain issues
The Grossmont Union High School District, which contains Valhalla High, is currently grappling with the supply chain issues facing schools and the entire restaurant industry.
“Normally we have several vegetarian options each day,” said Collin McGlashen, district spokesperson. “But we will find it difficult to do so as supply chain problems and food worker shortages – also plaguing districts across the country – continue.”
McGlashen said the district nutrition director has started meeting with Erekat to discuss the issue of halal meals.
In neighboring San Diego Unified, the state’s second largest district, cafeterias also face the same supply and labor constraints.
“Companies come to us and tell us they don’t have enough workers so they can’t cope with all the bagging of prepackaged miniature apples and carrots,” said Tara McNamara, Marketing Coordinator. in the district food and nutrition department. “Fortunately, we always hear about these shortages ahead of time, so there is never a problem the same day. “
In 2015, San Diego Unified took steps to implement a Halal Meal Program by serving Halal Chili Lime Chicken Drumstick at one of its high schools. The meal cost about 19 cents more to produce than the typical cafeteria meal, but it drew 400 more students into the cafeteria lines.
The district kept a halal chicken drumstick on the menu until the pandemic closed schools in March 2020. Cafeterias no longer offer the halal option this year due to time and manpower. necessary for production.
“At the moment, the chicken drumstick is not on the menu as we had to look at items that require less production time on our end,” said McNamara. “We have items that are a little easier to prepare for our staff. “
Adina Batnitzky, a sociologist at the University of San Diego who studies Arab-American health disparities, said failing to provide meals that conform to religious or cultural beliefs may in the short term hamper students’ concentration in school. In the long run, the lack of meal options may continue to isolate minority student groups.
“I think this is nutritionally important, educational important and symbolic important,” Batnitzky said. “I think it’s empowering for a student to go to school and be offered foods that are consistent with their religious and cultural beliefs.
Elk Grove Unified, which serves more than 1,200 Afghan refugee students, currently offers vegetarian alternatives in its school cafeterias. District spokesperson Xanthi Soriano said he is exploring the possibility of offering halal meals as the Afghan refugee community continues to grow.
Kosher options also limited
While Jewish kosher rules are similar to halal, Batnitzky said kosher meals are less in demand in public school cafeterias because Jewish students who adhere to strict dietary restrictions likely attend religious schools.
“Many of us think there will be no housing,” said Rabbi Mona Alfi, who heads the B’nai Israel Congregation in Sacramento. “If the students don’t go to a private school, they cook their own lunch. “
Alfi said the lack of kosher meals in public schools is a downside, but it hasn’t been a big deal. Rabbi Lionel Moses of the Mosaic Law Congregation, also in Sacramento, said “to date this has not been a problem at all.”
“I guess families who keep kosher send their kids to school with homemade kosher breakfasts,” he said.
Some public school districts, including Beverly Hills Unified, offer kosher meals.
There is precedent in the United States for serving halal meals in public schools. Public schools in Dearborn, a neighborhood outside of Detroit, began serving halal meals in their cafeterias in 2001.
“At first it was a very limited choice. It was just chicken nuggets, ”said David Mustonen, district spokesperson. “But the selection increased as the demand increased.”
Mustonen said that initially halal meals cost the district about 33% more than their non-halal offerings. But that higher cost disappeared as the district grew and began to buy from halal distributors in larger quantities. Mustonen said the food is precooked and requires the same amount of preparation as non-halal meals once it arrives at cafeterias in the district.
“At first the cost was prohibitive because there weren’t a large number of certified distributors,” Mustonen said. “Now that’s not a big deal. All of our meals are halal.
Sahra Abdi, a parent and lawyer in San Diego, wants to offer the same options to her school district.
“There are a lot of Muslims in our school, but they are not visible,” she said. “I think having options would be great.”