Editor’s Note: Agri-Pulse and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs are co-hosting a monthly column to examine how the US agri-food sector can maintain its competitive edge and improve food security in an increasingly integrated and dynamic world.
A group of Chicago high school students had a pressing question when they met with the company that supplies their school with food earlier this year.
“We did some research on your website and found that people matter most to you,” said one of the students, Ridwan Abdul Rashid, then a senior at Sullivan High School. “They say… ‘We are committed to bringing well-being and justice to both our employees and all the people we serve.’ ”
He and the students then projected a slide with their big question: “Is it fair to deny Muslim students access to halal food?”
Aramark, the Chicago Public Schools food service provider, did not have a halal meal program for high schools at the time with food, particularly meat, certified as having been handled according to Islamic guidelines. At Sullivan High School, north of the city, more than half of the students are often children of refugee or immigrant families; Many languages can be heard in the corridors. The students found that at least 15% of their classmates are Muslims. And yet, they pointed out, there was no Halal-certified food in the cafeteria.
Ridwan and his friends presented the results of a survey they conducted among fellow Muslim students: almost all of the almost 100 respondents said that halal is important to them. More than 80% said they were always or often hungry at school due to the lack of suitable Halal dining options. Nearly two-thirds said they bring food from home and forego the free lunch and breakfast programs offered under federal programs. of these, three quarters said they bring food from home because there are no halal options.
“If students are hungry all day, it can seriously impair education,” her presentation reads. “Can’t concentrate in class; always tired; no energy to participate in extracurricular activities. That’s not fair….”
The question from the Sullivan High Student Voice Council, “Is it fair?” is a question that should also echo in the deliberations of the September 28 White House conference on hunger, nutrition and health. Justice and fairness were frequent themes heard during the listening sessions hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and World Central Kitchen, as well as during the sessions hosted by many other organizations in the run-up to the White House conference.
The major problems of food insecurity in America have largely focused on the three A’s: availability, accessibility, affordability. It is clear from the listening sessions that a fourth A must be included: acceptance.
Are the foods available in government assistance programs acceptable to diverse communities with specific religious (e.g., halal or kosher), cultural, or physical needs?
Asma Ahad, director of halal market development at the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA), based near Chicago, said the impact of nutritional inequalities goes beyond the individual to society at large. “Food insecurity is a real problem,” she said in a statement. “If these children come to school and are not receiving proper nutrition that meets their religious dietary requirements, they cannot be at 100 percent mentally and physically. They function at a suboptimal level. This has short- and long-term implications for their development.”
Ridwan, whose Rohingya family took refuge in Malaysia, where he was born, before moving to the US, describes the impact on his education: “I was always hungry and tired at school. When I’m tired I don’t want to do anything, it was the same as with other students.”
He says he and Muslim classmates rush home after school to eat. That meant a lack of tutoring and extracurricular activities; few had the energy for sport. Relations became strained with teachers, who criticized them for not participating as actively in class as other students. And he pointed to the economic strain on low-income refugee and immigrant families whose children were unable to attend federally-backed free breakfast and lunch programs that did not offer halal options.
“It’s not okay. It’s the wages that a family loses because they have to prepare extra food so their children can eat the next day,” said Josh Zepeda, an immigrant and refugee social worker at Sullivan High. He was impressed , he says, as the students themselves raised the call for change.”For me, the big impact is seeing these young people take power. For students who are migrants and refugees, who, from the moment in arriving here being told that they are the lowest of the low… to find their dignity, to find their voice, to be able to say that I deserve this, I am entitled to this freedom lunch, and just because I “Being entitled to a free lunch does not mean that it has to be a dishonorable lunch. It should be a lunch that is nutritious while respecting the dignity of every Muslim student.”
Justine Britten, director of the nutrition program at Chicago Public Schools, was similarly impressed. “What we love most is to see students committing to change,” she said. “It’s inspiring.” As did Aramark representatives who attended the meeting, who told the students it was “really one of the best student-put together presentations… Really well done.”
Following the meeting, Aramark introduced a halal program in Sullivan as part of a pilot program that also includes several elementary schools. The company noted that it also works with a caterer to provide kosher meals that students can order. However, some students remain concerned about the monitoring and authentication of the halal process, and advocates for diet diversity in schools say such programs need to go further with assurances of certification and expansion to more schools. During the election campaigns in the cities, demands were made that the city schools should adequately meet the religious, dietary and nutritional requirements of the students.
Ridwan, now at Loyola University in Chicago, said the students had been thinking big from the start, beyond their own high school. He would like the White House Conference on Hunger, Diet and Health to spur a national movement that would bring culturally acceptable diet options into schools “in all 50 states.” I want the President and leaders of our country to work on this and make this a priority.”
Roger Thurow is a Senior Fellow on Global Food and Agriculture with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, having worked at the Wall Street Journal for three decades, including 20 years as a foreign correspondent. He is the author of three books on the persistence of hunger and malnutrition and a visiting scholar at Auburn University’s Hunger Solutions Institute.
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