As students from P.S. 131 are dismissed, one subdued face stands out among the excited children rushing out into the streets of Jamaica, Queens. Yasmin Islam, an 8-year-old elementary school student, comes out looking pale and exhausted. It’s a familiar scene for his father, Bangladesh-born Mohammad Islam Delwar, who hugs Yasmin and hastens to take him home.
Yasmin hasn’t eaten anything during the school lunch period. Other students eat chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers, beef tacos and a variety of other foods.
The absence of a halal menu in the lunch room means Yasmin has no choice but to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – or nothing at all. Asked about lunch, little Yasmin said, “My father told me that any type of meat can’t be eaten. So I cannot eat anything other than peanut butter and jelly and I am tired of it.”
Observant Muslims must eat food that is halal, meaning permitted or “lawful.” The food is prepared according to religious dietary laws that govern, among other things, the manner in which animals are slaughtered. The consumption of pork is forbidden.
It isn’t known how many public school districts in the U.S. offer menus that meet dietary requirements of a diverse student population. In Dearborn, Mich., which has a large Muslim population, children at school lunchrooms have been offered halal food in a pilot program that has grown over the past decade.
In New York public schools, Yasmin is one of an increasing number of kids unable to obtain halal food. According to a research project done by Columbia University’s Teachers College in 2008, one out of every 10 New York City public school students, nearly 100,000 kids, is Muslim. Advocates from the Coalition for Muslim School Holidays, a group that came together in 2009, put the number of Muslim students higher, at 12 percent of the 1.1 million public school population, or 132,000 kids.
David Pena, deputy press secretary of the New York City Department of Education, declined to speculate. “We don’t have the number of Muslim students in New York City,” he said. “Religious identity of the students is not asked during admission.”
But in an election year when City Council seats and all citywide offices are up for grabs, the number that has politicians taking notice of issues important to Muslims is not so much students – but voters.
According to the Muslim Democratic Club of New York (MDCNY), there are 105,000 registered Muslim voters in the city. These voters include people from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Albania, Bosnia, India, Palestine, Turkey, Kurdistan, Yemen, and various African countries. Up to 70 percent of them are registered Democrats.
“Whoever this time comes to us seeking our votes, we will demand halal food and holidays on Eid festivals,” said Mohsin Zahir, the editor of the Pakistani community newspaper Sada-E-Pakistan.
In 2009, the City Council overwhelmingly passed a non-binding resolution calling for schools to be closed on Eid Ul-Fitr and Eid Ul-Adha – but Mayor Bloomberg declined to include the holidays on the school calendar, saying that the school year “is too short as it is.”
Since then, the Muslim community has become more focused than before. And it has gotten politicians to take notice.
At a recent forum hosted by the Arab American Association of New York and the Islamic Center at New York University, six Democratic mayoral candidates, along with Independence Party nominee Adolfo Carrión, promised that if elected, they would add the two Eid holidays to the public school calendar.
And at a large gathering on Coney Island on Pakistan Day last March, candidates Bill de Blasio, Bill Thompson and John Liu promised to bring halal food to schools.
The city does not provide its students food conforming to religious tenets. “We don’t serve kosher foods in schools,” said Pena, referring to the Jewish dietary law. “We have to follow strict USDA regulations when serving food in schools.”
However, he didn’t rule out the prospect of halal foods being introduced. “It depends on the demand, and the principals of the schools,” explained Pena. “It is possible to supply halal food once a week if there is a strong demand for it. But there is no decision yet to launch halal food.”
Marge Feinberg, another spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Education, added that the schools’ menus include vegetarian dishes. “Our kitchens and our kitchen staff are not equipped for specialty meat requirements,” she said. “We have a variety of non-meat options for children.”
But for labor leader Maf Misbha Uddin, the District Council 37 treasurer and founding president of Alliance of South Asian Association of Labor (ASAAL), halal food is not an issue of demand or will, but of religious freedom.
“I feel that serving halal food in school is our constitutional right since the constitution has ensured equal rights for all religious groups and ensured the observance of religion without any obstacle,” said Uddin, whose five children grew up in the city and never ate school lunches because halal menu choices were unavailable.
Imam Shamsi Ali, of the Jamaica Muslim Center of New York, agreed.
“For a Muslim, it is essential to follow the scriptural ruling on halal food,” he said. “A Muslim cannot take anything beyond halal unless it is urgent to save his life. It is haram [prohibited] to eat anything other than halal food.”
The Quran and the “Hadith,” the sayings of Prophet Mohammad, set strict guidelines about food and a practicing Muslim must follow those guidelines.
Parents say that sending their children to school with their lunches presents a problem.
“If my children are given food from home, it becomes cold during lunch period,” said Zahir, the newspaper editor. “Our children have nothing to do except sitting by the side of other students when they enjoy hot food.”
“Our children,” said Islam Delwar, summing up the issue, “go hungry at schools.”
For his son Yasmin and thousands of others in New York, a new mayor could bring a welcome and much-needed change to their daily lunchtime experience at school.
This article was written as part of the Covering NYC: Political Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media and funded by a grant from the Charles H. Revson Foundation.