Muslim San Diego Residents Call For Halal School Lunches
Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has ruled the debate over school lunches since his 2010 campaign to overhaul American diets — starting with those on-camera confrontations with lunch ladies in his show "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution."
He sent a team of healthy food advocates on tour in a big rig equipped with a teaching kitchen. But the team got an unexpected lesson Saturday when it ended the tour with a cooking demonstration in San Diego.
The lesson came from a group of Muslim students and parents at Hoover High School in City Heights.
"I didn't even know what halal was or what their guidelines particularly pertain to," said chef Matt Harrison, who's traveled with the rig to eight cities since September. "When we got here we actually had a couple of ladies who came on board and they informed us what halal was and the guidelines they needed to follow."
Muslim members of the community's Food Justice Momentum Team told Oliver's chefs they wanted their diet restrictions considered in the San Diego workshops. And they were. Mothers and daughters in jewel-toned headscarves tied aprons over their floor-length dresses as they gathered in the rig's kitchen to cook breakfast.
The refugee group is hoping to replicate the win at a San Diego Unified School Board meeting this month. It wants the district to offer a halal option in school cafeterias.
The City Heights neighborhood is home to a large community of Muslim East Africans. Their religion requires them to eat halal foods, which are similar to kosher — no pork or pork products like gelatin and no meat slaughtered outside of the faith's strict guidelines.
"I want to see a change in the schools," Momentum team member Shukri Abdi said. "I want to see my son (offered) a different style of food than what I saw."
Abdi graduated from Crawford High School in 2007 and now has a son starting out in the district. She said she wasn't able to eat at school because the foods weren't halal. The hunger affected her studies.
Faduma Adam Haji goes to the Kearny High Educational Complex. She said packing a lunch always is an option, but it's a burden for low-income families. Many refugee children, including Haji, receive free and reduced meals at school.
"I feel like the free and reduced lunch is a waste, because you're providing me with resources to get lunch because of my low income but, at the same time, you're not providing me with the lunch that I'm supposed to be eating," Haji said.
If the district does offer a halal option, there's a good chance it will see some pushback, Adina Batnitzky said. She's a sociologist at the University of San Diego who studies health disparities related to acculturation.
Batnitzky went to bat for the local Muslim community in 2012 when it called for the YMCA to offer special swim hours for Muslim girls. Their faith also requires modesty, so they didn't feel comfortable swimming in front of men. The issue sparked a contentious conversation about Sharia law and assimilation.
Batnitsky said offering a halal option at schools has nothing to do with political Islam and everything to do with public health.
"If these children are not given the opportunity to eat foods that are congruent with their religion, then they're either going to not eat, which of course is not conducive to learning, or alternatively they're going to focus on eating only foods they're familiar with that follow their dietary restrictions, and that's often junk food that you can easily read the ingredients and say, 'OK, this would be all right,'" Batnitzky said. "But I don't think we want our children just to be eating potato chips all day."
San Diego Unified officials would not comment on the halal campaign but have met with the City Heights group.
The district already offers vegetarian options, which, by the way, aren't always halal thanks to processed salad dressings. And there already is a precedent for halal school lunches. Schools in Michigan, which has the nation's highest population of East African refugees, already offer them.
Residents calling for the meals say it wouldn't require a drastic change in traditional school menus.
"I'm not saying they should stop giving meat or whatever to the other kids," said Creative, Performing and Media Arts Middle School student Noun Abdelaziz. "I just want healthier, better food."
If the school board OKs the meals, there's a good chance non-Muslim students won't really notice. On the menu back on Jamie Oliver's big rig: "All-American Pancakes."
The least American thing about it? No side of bacon.