As a Muslim American parent I expect certain challenges in raising Muslim children in American society. I expect that I have to
explain, to my children disappointment, that they cannot attend school dances because we do not intermingle boys and girls in a social setting. I expected that I have to come to their class to explain why my daughter wear a hijab to stop her from being bullied and isolated by other children, which I did for her 6th grade class. I even expect and pre-wrote a letter explaining fasting to her teachers and principle and ask that she be excused from the lunchroom during the month of Ramadan. However, I never thought I would have to beg for my child to be fed.
As an observant Muslim family we follow the religious restriction of a halal diet. In addition to the well-known restriction that does not allow us to eat pork, we also only eat meat that has been raised and slaughter in a permissible manner. Besides halal meat raised and slaughtered by Muslims we can also eat kosher meat, which has almost identical to halal laws on slaughtering, although we do not require the kosher cooking and serving restrictions.
Recently my daughter came home on several consecutive days dropping her book bag and heading straight for the fridge. Saying how hungry she was because she either ate nothing in school all day or was given only a bowl of cereal for lunch. So that began my series of emails, letters, meeting and phone calls (read my letter to administrators here) to school administration to find out that children who do not eat the school meat based meals are basically expected to starve. Okay maybe starve is a strong word, they aren’t exactly starving them but the lack luster alternative of salad on a daily basis, which the children do not eat is not really an alternative. Asking for a bowl of froot loops instead has been the preferred alternative for my children, which the lunch staff has been kind enough to oblige.
I was extremely disappointed after speaking to several administrators that in fact the school only offers salad to its students as alternatives to the regular school lunch. I teach nutrition as a part of my job as a fitness trainer and I can tell you that even adults don’t want to eat salad every single day. So I am quite puzzled indeed how anyone sitting down planning an “alternative” meal can even think that would be a suitable DAILY meal for children.
As stated in my letter to administrators:
It is our position that giving children Tuna Salad everyday of the school year is not a suitable daily alternative when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns that Women of childbearing years and young children not to eat tuna more than once a week. In addition when other children’s lunch consist of “oven fried chicken, peas and carrots, Whole wheat dinner roll, Butter, and fresh or children fruit” and non-meat eating students are given according to Ms. Roundtree and Ms. White, “A Salad, Roll and Fruit” we can not consider that a suitable daily alternative for children who are expected to preform with academic excellence in a demanding educational and behavioral environment of a 10 hours school day, neither is a daily alternative of salad nutritionally nor categorically equivalent to lunches provided to other student. The exact same alternative each day lacks any variety in micro or macronutrients for children nor any similitude of a balance diet, unlike the 8 different lunch options and varieties offered to other children throughout each month.
I challenged the administrator; the Principle and its Dean of Operations to have only the school salad everyday for lunch and just see how they feel. Let’s see how their job performance is affected; let’s notice their behavior difference. And I am sure they will lose a few extra pounds, which may be the best part of the challenge.
There are many studies that have recorded the significant academic decline in children who have poor diet quality. So it is baffling that my children are given donuts for breakfast at least 2 days a week, followed by either cereal or a salad for lunch and some cheese-it crackers for a snack and are expected to perform above and beyond their public school counterparts. (Read “Diet Quality and Academic Performance“)
The Achievement First Charter School is extremely academically and behaviorally demanding. It is a 10-hour school day that gives demerits for students not sitting up straight or not “tracking” the teacher (following the teacher with their eyes and attention). Achievement First is in fact A, B, C, F grading system. It does not even allow students to earn a D. They believe in holding students and it’s teacher’s to high standards, not allowing just mediocre or bare minimal performance in any aspects of the educational environment. In fact that is why I send my children there. Yet it does not hold itself to the same standard, offering only a bare minimal meal and its administrators basically saying something is better than nothing.
The implications of this are far reaching beyond my Muslim family and me. It affects observant Jewish
Families, 7-Day Adventist, and even vegetarians all of who must be aware that when choosing a school like Achievement First their child’s nutrition is not a priority for the school. I am fortunate that I can afford to send my children with lunch (on the days they remember to bring it), but what about families who have no food to send with their children and choose religious or ethical dietary observance? Are they just left to fend for themselves? The entire point of offering school lunch is to fight against child hunger but schools that offer little more than a salad as an alternative are obviously not in the fight. The question I ponder at this point “Is this ‘eat meat or starve attitude’ discriminatory to these families? Are families who choose alternate diets excluded from consideration because of this choice? This is a far-reaching question that has to be answered by policy and lawmakers who govern both public and charter schools like the one my children attend.
So here is the unexpected dilemma I find myself in as a Muslim American family.