‘None of the Muslim kids can eat’: Illinois to provide halal and kosher meals to schoolkids | Illinois

As a student at Sullivan high school in Chicago, Ridwan Rashid frequently skipped lunch and was distracted by hunger, even though his school offered free meals to all students. Rashid is Muslim, as are a growing number of students at Sullivan. But until recently, none of the meals served at the Sullivan cafeteria were halal, which meant they were off limits for most of the school’s Muslim students.

“We go to school and it’s like, OK, some of the kids can eat and none of the Muslim kids can eat,” Rashid said. “It’s not fair.”

Some of the kids can eat and none of the Muslim kids can eat. It’s not fair

Ridwan Rashid

But a bill that passed the Illinois legislature last week will change that, requiring state-funded institutions – including schools, prisons and hospitals – to provide halal and kosher meals if requested. “It’s definitely a historic moment,” said Gerald Hankerson, director of policy at the Muslim Civic Coalition, a national civic engagement non-profit that helped author the bill. “We hope it can be replicated in other states. It is very needed.”

Its passage comes as Muslim parents and community advocates across the US have spent years calling on schools to serve halal meals, arguing that it’s not just a matter of inclusion, but of food security for a community with high rates of poverty.

A staggering 33% of Muslim households in the US earn $30,000 – the poverty line for a family of four – or less each year, compared with 24% of Americans generally, according to a 2018 survey from ​​the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. At the same time, a majority of Muslims say following halal – a set of religious guidelines for how food is prepared and consumed – is important to them. While the US offers free and reduced-price school lunches to ensure that kids don’t go hungry, some have pointed out that the program potentially excludes thousands of Muslim children because there are no requirements for meals to be religiously inclusive.

For some Muslims, halal simply means avoiding pork and alcohol, while for others, it’s a set of guidelines for how animals are cared for and slaughtered. Vegan and vegetarian food usually – but not always – satisfies these criteria.

Illinois has the largest per-capita population of Muslims in the country, but only a handful of districts serve halal meals, Hankerson said. He grew up mostly eating garden salads with oil and vinegar in his school cafeteria because it was the only option regularly offered to him.

It’s not just about satisfying hunger. It’s what it means for students to know that they matter

Gerald Hankerson of the Muslim Civic Coalition

“It’s not just about satisfying hunger,” Hankerson said. “It’s what it means for [students] to know that they matter.”

If the bill is signed by the governor, the new state requirements will go into effect in July 2024. Schools will be able to offer the options as a la carte menu items at an affordable price that students would pay for out of pocket, said Maaria Mozaffar, a legislative consultant for the Muslim Civic Coalition and the primary author of the bill.

While the Illinois legislation is thought to be the first of its kind, there has been similar movement in other states as well. Students in Milwaukee public schools, where the nutrition director has publicly acknowledged that offerings for Muslim students resemble a series of snacks, are in their second year of a campaign to improve offerings. And the New York City public school system – the largest school district in the country – has gone from offering halal and kosher items at a handful of schools to more than 80 in just a few years, after considerable public pressure.

Last year Paterson public schools in New Jersey started requiring their food service management company to offer halal meals. But finding halal vendors that could service the district was challenging, said Wesley Wallace, a client executive at SodexoMagic, which now runs the Paterson nutrition program. Many halal items – like Jamaican beef patties, which are popular with all students – are more expensive than standard school lunch staples. The district is currently serving halal entrees two days a week and trying to rotate vegetarian options that Muslim students can eat on other days.

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Although food insecurity is prevalent in the Muslim community, it’s rare for religious needs to be part of national conversations about food access, said Asma Ahad, director of halal market development at the non-profit Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America.

“There’s inequity in systems and infrastructure. And until we address some of these things, it’s hard for Muslims to be food secure,” Ahad said.

At Sullivan high school in Chicago, Rashid joined a student group focused on food justice that successfully pressured the district to start providing halal meals at Sullivan last year, at the end of Rashid’s senior year.

The district said in a written statement that it had started offering halal meals at seven schools at the start of the 2022-23 school year in response to community requests. It also noted that all its meals are pork-free, and that all schools have at least one vegetarian item offered every day.

Rashid, who’s now a freshman at Loyola University in Chicago, said many Muslim students have been struggling to concentrate in class because they don’t have energy during the school day – a challenge that he no longer faces. One of his favorite things about the college is the amount of halal options available on campus.

“The thing I love about Loyola is they work with students and have all kinds of food,” he said. “It makes a big difference.”

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