Muslim mother pushes for more vegetarian options in New Haven school lunches (video)
Published: Monday, January 09, 2012
NEW HAVEN — When Mubarakah Ibrahim’s kids forget to bring their lunch to school, they can’t dine on typical cafeteria fare, such as chicken nuggets or tacos.
Ibrahim and her children are Muslim and follow a strict halal diet. That means all pork is off limits, and only meat that has been prepared following halal guidelines can be consumed.
So for Ibrahim’s kids, being “halal” at school is the equivalent of being vegetarian.
While Amistad Academy offers “robust” salads for students who don’t eat meat — for religious reasons or otherwise — Ibrahim thinks the vegetarian menu should better reflect the kind of diverse menu other kids get.
If Monday’s meal is oven-fried chicken with peas and carrots with a roll and fresh fruit, why not offer grilled cheese with vegetables, roll and fruit for the other kids.
She said salad every day is too much salad. “These kids are all saladed out. What you eat is going to affect your behavior. It’s going to affect their ability to learn.”
Ibrahim said her concern is not rooted in religion, but in nutrition. For a host of reasons, more people are following alternative diets, which school policy should take into account, she said.
Nowadays, as the organic movement gains steam and people choose to practice vegetarian, vegan and other diets, school districts are seeing an increasing number of students who follow alternative diets.
A national survey conducted by the School Nutrition Association revealed that about two-thirds of responding districts provide vegetarian meal options.
Mark Linabury, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said in an email that schools participating in the U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition programs are not required to make substitutions for students based on religion. They can choose to do so.
New Haven schools Food Services Director Tim Cipriano said: “When it comes to religions, it’s a little more difficult. We are not required to do anything. But in our schools, we have different options,” Cipriano said.
Options in most schools include salad bars, with items such as black beans and corn to add protein. The district also offers vegetarian options such as grilled cheese, cheese ravioli and pizza, and is looking to add more non-meat items.
For Ibrahim, the problem started this year when she started teaching a 5:30 a.m. exercise class at her fitness club and wasn’t there when her children headed off to school in the morning.
Ibrahim packs each child a lunch, but the younger two of her four children often forget to grab the lunch.
When her daughter started coming home from school and making a beeline for the fridge, Ibrahim learned that her two children at Amistad Academy were being fed salad or breakfast cereal if they forgot their lunches.
In the past, Ibrahim sent halal or kosher hotdogs and chicken nuggets to school and the cafeteria workers would cook it. But, the cafeteria decided it could not longer keep separate food on hand, Ibrahim said.
Marc Michaelson, regional superintendent for Achievement First, stressed that school administrators met with Ibrahim and tried to work things out.
“At Achievement First, we do our best to really be partners with our families. We want to make as many accommodations as we can,” he said.
Michaelson said storing food from outside sources becomes a liability issue for food companies. Further, he said the district went “above and beyond” in agreeing to heat up the food Ibrahim sends in with her kids.
While Amistad Academy doesn’t have a salad bar, Michaelson said the alternative salads often include cheese or chicken or turkey.
Ibrahim would like to see a policy change that requires schools to offer a vegetarian option daily.
“From a kid’s perspective, getting served a salad feels like a punishment,” she said.
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