SAN DIEGO – Although many schools provide free lunches for students of low-income families, many of these lunches do not accommodate the dietary restrictions imposed by different religions.
This has been particularly problematic for Muslim children, hundreds of whom have reportedly been coming home from school hungry because their schools do not offer halal foods.
“Basically, halal food is a type of meat that has been slaughtered religiously,” explained Nezar Ilaian of Mid East Market. “So we don’t process it and we don’t repackage it.”
Although this food is organic and healthier, it is not offered in many poorer communities where families depend on free school lunches to feed their children.
“That’s a major concern,” said Somali immigrant Bilal Muya, who, along with his three children, is Muslim.
Muya heads a group called the Food Justice Momentum Team; the group has already met with the San Diego Unified School District about enacting changes to the menu at public schools.
In particular, the group is focusing on the City Heights area, which has a large concentration of Muslim students.
SD Unified already spends $16 million a year to provide 22 million meals for students. Halal meat, however, is pricey and often hard to come by; adding a halal menu to school lunches could mean adding considerable costs to their budget.
“The market for [halal meat] in San Diego alone is already kind of restrictive,” said Ilaian.
Notably, pork is never halal. Eliminating pork from all students’ diets, argue the owners of the Mid East Market, would benefit all students.
“Christians, Jews alike. They all agree that pork in general is a very unhealthy product,” noted Ilaian.
Muya added that altering students’ diets in such a way will “make those kids perform well in school and be happy.”
Muya stated that in addition to adding halal options to the menu, the group seeks to add more protein, as well as food bought from local farmers.
He added that although upfront costs might be higher, if you feed a child lower quality food “and then they end up getting sick, it’s going to cost later.”
Muya noted that school districts in Michigan have already made the switch.