Free Lunch for All, No Lunch for Some

As the lunch bell rings at 12:49 PM, the cafeteria window attracts lines of students but turns some away to wait until after the school day to eat at home.

This is the reality for students’ religious dietary restrictions: the district-provided lunch options fail to accomodate to California’s staggering 1.2 million Jewish and 500 thousand Muslim populations.

While California continues to be the first state in the nation to provide free breakfast and lunch to all TK-12 public school students, students who adhere to Kosher or Halal dietary practices increasingly find themselves having to bring their own lunch or skip lunch at school due to the limited number dietary-restriction-friendly lunch options.

At Glen A. Wilson High School (GAWHS), GAWHS Student Senate has actively worked to improve school food in the past two years, creating considerable progress in GAWHS school lunches’ improved quality and variety. However, ranging from the new menu’s nachos to cheeseburgers, GAWHS students still find few to no Kosher or Halal-friendly options at lunch other than eating a salad or cheese pizza for lunch every day.

Emily Axelrod (12), a Jewish student at GAWHS, gives insight into her experience with the lack of Kosher meal options in school food.

“There was one day when I had a meeting and went to lunch a little late. The cafeteria ran out of the Kosher-friendly cheese pizza, and the only other options they had were the cheeseburger and the nachos that were preloaded with ground meat and  melted cheese. Since I cannot consume meat and dairy together, I did not eat that day,” Axelrod recalled.

Additionally, when students like Axelrod attempt to request Kosher options, the lengthy paperwork process for cheese-less burgers once again leaves these students with no lunch during the school day.

“I have asked the cafeteria if they could separate the cheese from the burger or at least make one or two burgers without the cheese,” Axelrod said. “But [the cafeteria] said I had to go through a whole process with the district.”

As one of the three pillars of the California Universal Meals Program explicitly states its goals are to “include a nutritiously adequate breakfast and lunch for all children each school day,” it is hypocritical that students adhering to religious dietary restrictions must undergo the hassle of a bureaucratic process to eat the school lunches that are intended to nourish all students regardless of backgrounds.

Some may argue that GAWHS offers the chicken salad option for Halal and Kosher-keeping students. But this is the only relatively stable “safe item” on GAWHS menu, and it is sometimes swapped with Ham salad or other non-Kosher or non-Halal-friendly meals. And due to the lack of an accessible and reliable menu on GAWHS and HLPUSD school Food Services website, students with special dietary needs play a daily guess game in long lunch lines–often waiting up to 15 minutes out of the 30-minute lunch break, only to find themselves dissatisfied with a meager bag of baby carrots or no food at all. With two more hours of school to go, these students are to sit through the rest of their lessons with a hungry stomach until the school release bell at 3:21PM. 

Taking example from the San Diego Unified School District which piloted a Halal chicken drumstick bowl recipe that only cost the district 17 more cents to make. This new option on the menu attracted 300 more students to the school lunch line, including many students who were not Muslim and were simply happy to try a new lunch option. HLPUSD too can work to incorporate Halal and Kosher-friendly options to increase cultural/religious inclusivity in our lunch menu while maintaining the improvements in meal variety in GAWHS lunches in the past school year.

Moreover, extending the spirit of improvement outside of HLPUSD schools, this long-standing issue lies in the fact that the state of California has never required schools to provide meal options for students with dietary restrictions. Consequently, inadequate inclusivity in school food impacts minority students across California, including students at state universities such as UCLA.

As California stands proud as one of the nation’s most demographically diverse states, this has to change:  beyond the individual efforts of schools and districts, the state legislature must also support the wellbeing of its culturally diverse youth — for that no student should learn with a hungry stomach.

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