By 2040, the Muslim population in the United States is projected to become the nation’s second largest religious group, according to the Pew Research Center. Muslim students often have trouble accessing culturally relevant halal options in public schools. But community-led organizations across the United States are working to provide appropriate meal options and improve food security for young people.
Halal pertains to permissible ingredients such as specific cuts of meat that have been slaughtered according to Islamic law. Non-permissible, or haram products, include alcohol and pork. “[Halal] is an institution and comprehensive quality management system with clear religious guidelines that have been practiced for centuries,” Asma Ahad, Director of Halal Market Development at the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA) tells Food Tank. Currently, “there’s no governmental oversight, so there’s a lack of trust,” Ahad adds. She also says that “the observance of halal extends beyond meat.” IFANCA is a nonprofit based in Des Plaines, IL providing third-party halal oversight throughout the entire supply chain.
According to the 2022 Illinois Muslims Report, 94 percent of Muslims in Illinois observe halal guidelines, and Illinois has the largest per capita population of Muslims in the U.S. The report found that 39 percent of Muslim respondents with school-age children, along with 32 percent of students enrolled in college, lack access to halal food at their school. Chicago Sun Times reports that Chicago Public Schools (CPS) are failing to meet the needs of Muslim students who observe halal. Ahad says that the limited access to halal foods in schools is largely due to a lack of awareness and prioritization, a lack of funding, and a lack of understanding about halal foods and guidelines. This impacts food security for students across all income levels.
At Sullivan High School in Chicago, IL, most students are immigrants or refugees and come from low-income households. During the 2021-22 academic year, 90 Muslim students at Sullivan participated in a student-led “Halal School Survey.” Of the students surveyed, 100 percent shared that halal is important to them. Over 80 percent said they “always or often feel hungry because there are no suitable halal food options at school.”
Joshua Zepeda, a Refugee Social Worker at Sullivan High School reports, “we have a huge population of Muslim students and almost no halal options.” According to Zepeda, the lack of options also affects students’ ability to participate in after school activities and tutoring. A 2019 report by Food Fuels Learning finds that this particularly impacts students who rely on free and reduced lunch programs.
Thankfully, community groups around the country are working to develop culturally relevant meal options. The National Farm to School Network (NFSN), for example, is working to provide meal options that are accessible to all students, regardless of background, through their Values-Aligned Universal School Meals program. The goal of the program is to promote equity – and racial equity explicitly – throughout the supply chain and when meeting student needs.
“There’s a huge need for certain communities to support the Muslim community that should encompass [Halal],” Trisha Bautista Larson, Program Manager, NFSN tells Food Tank. “The next [step] is [to address] the importance of meal patterns, especially as it’s created by the federal child nutrition program standards.” She says it’s important to recognize “the vital role of cultural and religious foodways that help kids feel respected and nourished.”
And in Maine, the Portland-based Cultivating Community and Cumberland County Food Security Council, launched a district-wide initiative to develop new menus that accommodate Muslim students. Muslim Chef, Khadija Ahmed co-developed the menus with Chef Samantha Cowens-Gasparro and helped lead a training on halal guidelines to educate foodservice staff involved in the project.
“The biggest takeaway for me from this project has been that culturally important menu items go beyond flavor,” Lily Chaleff, School Program Manager at Cultivating Community tells Food Tank. “And when we’re talking about something being culturally relevant and culturally inclusive, it does come down to culture. Not just the meal, not just the food, [but] what are the dietary restrictions? What are the customs and cultures?”
While menus that were taste tested at three Portland, ME high schools were met with enthusiasm from most students, the schools did not use halal meat in the recipes, making them inaccessible to many Muslim students, Chaleff says.
IFANCA is also working with Chicago Public Schools (CPS), Chartwells Higher Ed, Muslim Youth of North America (MYNA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish a training program and national halal guidelines for K-12 schools, colleges, and universities to ensure equitable access to certified halal foods.
“When we create any food service program, we need to have engagement with the consumer – whether it’s at the university or at the public-school level – and we need to develop a really clear understanding of their expectations so we can build trust and transparency in our program,” Ahad tells Food Tank.
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Photo courtesy of Cultivating Community, Kelsey Kobik