Challenges Of Certifying & Expanding Halal Lunches In NYC Public Schools

A meal hub in NYC. (Photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

BROOKLYN – Two years ago, the city launched a halal and kosher school lunch pilot program. The pilot, which Council Member Chaim Deutsch and then-Council Member Rafael Espinal secured $1 million in the City Council budget for, started in April of 2019.

The pilot was a year long study, and included six schools, allowing the city to determine the cost and feasibility of providing halal/kosher lunches in school and how it would benefit children. While there are several vendors who are working with the city to provide the lunches, there is just one organization that is working with the city to make sure the halal lunches are properly implemented and is individually certifying schools to serve the meals, and it needs help.

According to an extensive report by NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, about one in eight public school students are Muslim and 38% of students are Muslim or Jewish, totaling roughly 430,000 children. Another 30,000 students attend non-public yeshivas in the city. “While it is unknown how many of these students follow strict religious dietary customs that would prohibit participating in school lunch programs, it is possible that thousands of students in New York City do not participate in DOE-provided school lunch because of their religious beliefs.”

Though the process of bringing such food options inside schools is going slow, NYC has been providing halal, kosher, and vegetarian options in designated food hubs across the city. In Brooklyn, the meals hubs that include halal options are located at the following schools:

  • PS 119 Amersfort⁠—3829 Avenue K
  • PS 159 Isaac Pitkin⁠—2781 Pitkin Ave
  • P.S. 179 Kensington⁠—202 Avenue C
  • PS 217⁠—1100 Newkirk Ave
  • PS 139⁠—330 Rugby Rd
  • PS 170⁠—619 72nd St
  • PS 253⁠—601 Oceanview Ave
  • PS/IS 104⁠—9115 5th Ave

The hubs that include kosher options are located at the following schools:

  • P.S. 192 The Magnet School For Math And Science⁠
  • P.S. 160 William T. Sampson⁠
  • P.S. 221⁠—791 Empire Blvd
  • P.S. 289 George V. Brower⁠—900 St Marks Avenue
  • P.S. 197 The Kings Highway Academy⁠—1599 East 22 Street
  • PS 132 The Conselyea School⁠—320 Manhattan Avenue
  • PS 257 John F Hylan⁠—60 Cook Street
  • Brooklyn Community High School of Communication, Arts and Media⁠—300 Willoughby Avenue
  • P.S. 16⁠—157 Wilson Street

“Two years ago we launched our pilot programs for halal and kosher meals in schools, which laid the foundation for us to rapidly expand and meet the needs of both communities during the pandemic,” Nathaniel Styer, the deputy press secretary at the DOE told Bklyner. “We are proud to serve our students and community members that require halal or kosher meals and we will continue to do some as long as this crisis requires.”

In February of this year, NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson called on the NYC Department of Education (DOE) to finally start providing halal and kosher lunches in all public schools after a caller complained his kid didn’t have any halal lunch in his Manhattan school. Having these options available in schools is crucial.

Providing such meals in every NYC public school is a challenging task, something that Stringer’s proposal also acknowledged. But it is not impossible. In the past year, Majlis Ash-Shura: Islamic Leadership Council of NY, a non-profit organization, has been working with the DOE to train and certify public schools throughout the city to serve halal meal options. So far, they have certified 36 schools, which include eight in Brooklyn.

The process of certifying a school is a long one, especially since there are over 1,700 public schools in the city. It is something Imam Ibad Wali, a resident scholar at Majlis Ash-Shura, explained in the video below.

“I remember spending three years as a student in IS 238 in Queens, NY eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches year after year. Alhamdulilah (praise be to God), while working with Majlis Ash-Shura, I had the privilege of going back to that same junior high school… and certifying their kitchen to serve halal food. But we’ve only begun,” he said. “It’s going to be a lengthy process. And we need your help.”

How does the certification work? The non-profit has implemented a five critical control point system to guarantee and ensure halal integrity in all public schools as they serve halal food. The points are as follows:

  1. Delivery: The delivery-person has to make sure that all halal items that are entering the facility are separated from the non-halal items.
  2. Organizing food items: The kitchen staff has to take the items and store them into specific halal-marked freezers.
  3. Preparation: It includes utensils, trays, pans, and anything used to prepare food.
  4. Storage: Prior to serving, the halal designated warmer or fridge is utilized.
  5. Serving: Staff is trained to make sure there is no cross-contamination while serving the food.

Part of the certification also includes training the kitchen staff by giving them a theological understanding of Islam and what it means to be halal– food that adheres to Islamic law. But, in order to continue the process, they need help to fund the certification.

Though the DOE does cover certain expenses, it does not cover all of them. Their goal is to raise at least $100,000 for the first phase of the project to cover as many schools as possible. They want to use the money for imam consultation fees, training staff, developing policies/procedures, transportation costs, raising community awareness, providing salaries to new staff involved in the project, and office supplies. Currently, they have raised nearly $1,800.

“When I initially secured funding for the kosher/halal lunch pilot program in schools, it was to ensure that every New York City student is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve,” Deutsch told Bklyner. “The expansion of this program proves that it can and should be implemented in all schools, public and private. No child should ever feel ostracized because of their religious beliefs.”

Sumerah Khan, 36, has a son who currently attends P.S. 217, one of the schools in the pilot program that has been offering halal food. Khan also has another son who graduated from the school two years ago. She firmly believes every school should provide its students with halal food options. Just giving kids peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every single day is not enough, she explained.

“NYC is the largest public school system in the United States. Thousands of Muslim children attend public school here. Muslim kids make up a large portion of these schools. So why wouldn’t you provide them with the meals they eat?” she said.

“It is about time every school offers its children halal lunches. And I mean like chicken nuggets, beef sandwiches, turkey. Lunch is an important part of the day for kids and is vital to their health and how well they do in school. Though I am lucky my child is provided with halal lunch, of course, this program should be expanded everywhere else.”

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Zainab Iqbal

Zainab is a staff reporter at Bklyner who sometimes writes poetry in her free time || zainab@bklyner.com

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