Chicago-area parents want zabiha-halal and kosher food options in schools. A proposed bill would be a game changer. – Chicago Tribune newstrendslive

Every morning before sending her two kids off to second and third grade, Sadiya Zackria checks the school’s breakfast and lunch menu to see whether she’ll have to send along a brown bag.

“It’s a daily ‘spin the wheel’ — what can the kids eat?” she said over the phone. Because Zackria follows a zabiha-halal dietary standard like many Muslims, her family eats only meat that has been slaughtered under Islamic guidelines.

“They always have to make a choice,” Zackria said about her kids. “They’ll pick the French toast sticks with the chicken sausage patty and then throw away the chicken sausage patty. … Some days, the only vegetarian option is cereal. The kids get Cheerios and milk and fruit and a veggie side, and if you know elementary-aged kids, they’re not eating that!”

According to the Halal Food Standards Alliance of America, zabiha refers to meat that comes from an animal that was hand-slaughtered instead of machine-cut in a way that aims to ensure the animal does not suffer and is treated humanely. Also, the Muslim individual who cuts the meat must recite tasmiya, or the name of God, when doing so. Halal is an Arabic word that means “permissible” and refers to foods and other things that are allowed in Islam.

Many parents across the Chicago area can relate to Zackria’s woes about what kinds of foods are offered in school cafeterias.

But a new Illinois bill, slated to be voted on in the spring legislative session, would be a game changer for students and parents, and any individual who requires food from a state-operated facility, said Maaria Mozaffar, director of advocacy and policy at the Illinois Muslim Civic Coalition.

If passed, the Faith By Plate Act would ensure that any state-owned or state-operated facilities such as hospitals, schools and prisons that provide food services or cafeteria services also offer zabiha-halal and kosher food options upon request when provided with notice.

“I have in mind the person that’s incarcerated and is only given options for food that are not halal or kosher — a person who is incarcerated is serving their sentence, they are not being sentenced to starvation or violating their own religious observance,” said Mozaffar, who wrote the bill sponsored by the coalition. “Number two, the elderly patient in the hospital who needs protein and proper food while they’re at the hospital recovering. Thirdly, the public school student who wants to have cafeteria food but are only given options such as cheese pizza or veggie sticks.”

The bill was introduced in Springfield last year, but will be filed again in the spring with tweaked language. “The language is everything — every word really, really matters,” Mozaffar said.

The bill was co-sponsored by State Rep. Janet Yang Rohr, who said that a piece of legislation that was passed last year — the plant-based lunch bill that will go into effect in August — gave them a few pointers.

Yang Rohr said the plant-based law, which requires every school in the state to accommodate students who request plant-based options, passed on the second round after it was reworked to allow schools more time to get on board.

“It’s always a little unpredictable so we want to maximize the chances of (the Faith By Plate Act) being passed,” Yang Rohr said. “We want to be mindful that schools can actually implement this with fidelity. We’re giving them about a year to figure out how to do this.”

Mozaffar said halal food purveyors — stores that sell halal products, butcher shops that offer zabiha meat, and restaurants — are readily available in the Chicago area but not so much in other parts of Illinois. It will likely be easier for some districts and harder for others to adapt to the mandate if passed, she said.

Yang Rohr, who represents Naperville, noted the high population of Muslim families in her constituency.

“There seemed to be a lot of families whose needs weren’t being met, so for them, it will be really great,” Yang Rohr said. “When they put a request in for example, what they get now is, ‘Here is a vegetarian option for you,’ which is not quite what we want. It’s not exactly a halal meal.”

Zackria’s kids attend Ranch View Elementary in Naperville School District 203, where there is a weekly rotating selection of meals. Every day, students are able to choose between lunch choices A, B and C, and use their ID cards to pay with money populated into their student account by an adult.

For example, Zackria pointed to Wednesday’s lunch menu of a grilled cheese sandwich, chicken tenders with dinner roll, and Buffalo ranch popcorn chicken salad, as well as a side of veggies, fruit and milk.

“For me as a Muslim mom, it’s really challenging. My son will tell me, ‘Mom, I’ll eat the chicken tenders,’” she said. “And I’ll say, ‘No, I don’t want you eating chicken tenders!’ He’s a kid; to him chicken is halal, but he doesn’t understand the zabiha concept to it.”

Some days, after eliminating the meat options, her kids will grab yogurt, goldfish and string cheese as their meal.

Zackria said she emailed the district’s third-party food service provider, Aramark, to inquire about better options but has not heard back.

Durdana Rahman, a Naperville parent who also runs a grassroots organization called the Muslim Education Advisory Council, said it isn’t just about halal.

“It’s about inclusivity — not just about doing it for Muslims,” Rahman said. “We want everyone to be included. If we’re paying the taxes, and paying for the food, it isn’t something unreasonable to ask for.”

Chicago-based Rabbi Shlomo Soroka, director of government affairs at Agudath Israel of Illinois, was tapped by Mozaffar to work with the coalition on Faith By Plate.

“Whenever it comes to having a sensitivity towards dietary restrictions that are faith-related, it’s important to the Jewish community that other faiths that may have dietary restrictions be accommodated and the Muslim community shares that sentiment,” Soroka said. “It’s only natural that we should be supporting each other.”

Soroka said the Orthodox Jewish faith follows a “very complex” process for keeping kosher, “and it has nothing to do with the rabbi blessing the food.”

Naturally grown produce before it’s cooked and processed in almost all cases is kosher. When it comes to poultry and beef, the way the animal is slaughtered and prepared also makes a big difference, he said. Any food — whether it’s meat or fruits and vegetables — the law states how that food is cooked as well the utensils that are used when the meal is being prepared.

“Jews don’t have milk and meat together, so if a student is keeping kosher, they are not going to be able to drink a milk carton with their hamburger,” Soroka said.

Rahman’s ninth-grade son, who attends Indian Prairie School District 204, struggles to fill up on the vegetarian options at lunch, so he typically takes food from home despite paying for the lunch program, she said.

Rahman said she’s noticed that parents of other children who don’t have an issue with the school lunch program rarely speak up for parents whose children don’t have options.

“It should be like, just because I don’t have an issue with something doesn’t mean I shouldn’t uplift and support other people who do have an issue,” Rahman said.

Rahman said she has spoken to the district about zabiha-halal offerings and diversifying the menu, but it hasn’t resulted in any changes yet.

“The point is, children should eat. A hungry child does not learn, they do not think, they get tired,” Rahman said.

Sana Siddiqui makes lunches for her 9-year old triplets, Noor, Musa and Emaan, with 6-year old daughter Aafya, foreground, the night before school on Jan. 29, 2023.
Sana Siddiqui makes lunches for her four children the night before school in Naperville on Jan. 29, 2023.

Sana Siddiqui, a single mom with 9-year-old triplets and a 6-year-old who attend White Eagle Elementary in Naperville District 204, buys into the school’s lunch program but still has to make food the night before on most weekdays.

“It’s hard for me to get lunch ready for them if I am working late or have an early morning,” said Siddiqui, who is a full-time physician. “On days they can get lunch, they’re really limited in their options — essentially they can do cheese pizza or mac and cheese.”

Siddiqui said she tries to be strict about zabiha-halal meat but allows her young kids to choose the non-zabiha-halal chicken options at school if they’re not able to fill up on anything else.

“Listen, if there’s no other option there, I’d rather they eat something than not eat anything at all,” she said. “But the kids themselves don’t want to.”

Her son, one of the triplets, has ADHD, Siddiqui said, which complicates the matter even further.

“He takes medication for his ADHD and the medication suppresses his appetite, so if he does not have options that are available to him that he finds attractive, then he’s just not going to eat,” she said. “It would be amazing to know that my kids have options when they go to school that can help them through their day.”

Siddiqui said most days her kids’ first real meal of the day is around 4 p.m., when they come home.

While the legislation has not yet been voted on, some third-party food service providers have already dealt with Muslim and Jewish students requesting specific options through their school districts.

Last year, Lombard-based Quest Food Management Services fielded 15 requests for halal meals and about five requests for kosher meals.

“We have a system in place to do it where there is enough demand from the student population for the school districts we serve,” said Nick Saccaro, president of Quest.

Because Quest does not have the ability to do in-house production or strictly adhere to the religious guidelines, it uses a third-party resource to prepare those meals and bring them on-site.

“When we are put in a position where we need to meet specific requirements for different populations, I want to stress how seriously we take it to follow it exactly the way it’s meant to be done,” Saccaro said, explaining that rabbis are enlisted to oversea kosher food preparation to make sure the requirements are being met. Soroka said there are vendors who specialize in making kosher meals that can be delivered in bulk.

Saccaro said Quest is aware of the Faith By Plate bill. Some of the school district partners asked what options Quest might be able to bring to the table and if there are any limitations.

“If we think about the year most of the schools we are preparing food in were built — it’s decades and decades ago,” he said, noting that it’s difficult to guarantee no cross-contamination, whether it’s related to allergens or meat. “It requires some creative thinking between us and the districts on where we might find solutions.”

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Mozaffar said there’s currently no agency that monitors halal or kosher food at state-operated institutions. Under the bill, the state would approve a list of halal-certified food purveyors that districts and third-party food service companies can use.

Juan Zuniga, vice president of culinary at Quest, said that while they have some experience with fulfilling requests for halal and kosher food options, there is still a long way to go.

“For example, we’ve been working to understand what zabiha-halal is and the difference, and how to strictly preserve the process that needs to be followed,” Zuniga said. “We’ve tried to make sure that we are doing it right and that everybody gets fed.”

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