“Meatless Mondays” won’t satisfy Jackson Heights’ diverse student population

The search for a perfect balance of nutritious yet popular meals in grade schools is long and seemingly never-ending. Pilot programs offering vegetarian or plant-based choices have been tried. Options for those with restrictive religious diets, however, have been overlooked until now.

A $1.1 million halal and kosher school lunch pilot program is officially part of Department of Education’s 2019 budget for select New York City schools. One of the program’s advocates, Mazeda Uddin, says she’s witnessed, as a muslim mother, the need for religion-based food options.

“This is the children’s’ voices, parent’s voices, and it should be powerful. They’re entering the classrooms hungry,” she said. “No child should leave a lunch room or enter a classroom hungry.”

The Renaissance Charter School is located in Jackson Heights, one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the country. The public school abandoned the Department of Education’s restrictions three years ago after finding it could not cater to their level of diversity. They applied to be their own School Food Authority, which allowed them the freedom to create a custom menu.

“We had participated with the D. O. E. school food and we were seeing our kids weren’t really eating in the way we had hoped for them to eat,” said Principal Stacey Gauthier. “It makes me feel good that we can do it, it’s one of the reasons we became a charter school in the first place, for that autonomy to be able to do it.”

Gauthier says the number of students who eat the school’s food has increased substantially, which she stresses is important, since over 70% of the student body qualifies for reduced or free lunches.

“We knew for a lot of the kids we served it might be the only meal they had,” Gauthier said.

She notes that the school receives meal reimbursement from the state and federal government.

“It tends to not be enough funding, so we do dip into operational funds to supplement it. We also do fundraising to fund for it,” she said.

Despite the added difficulty, Gauthier thinks it is worth it in the end.

“If they’re not eating, if they’re being bullied at the lunch table and no one is paying attention to it, if they’re feeling isolated, if they’re struggling academically and if after lunch they have to go to a class that they’re not feeling successful in,” Gauthier said. “You can’t expect a kid to learn calculus if they’re hungry, if they’re sad, if they’re frustrated.”

Suzanne Arnold’s job as head of school culture and student support is to research and make sure every child’s culture or religion is recognized.

“I started thinking about, ‘how does every kid see themselves on our walls? How does each kid feel like they belong’, because belonging is so important [to kids],” she said.

Arnold empathizes with parents who do have to send their children to a school without specialized food options.

“I was a single mom, and if I could have had the free or reduced school lunch option, then if you didn’t have food my kid can eat, in terms of religion or culture, then that wouldn’t be fair to me economically,” she explained.

Roughly 430,000 public school students in New York City are Muslim or Jewish, according to the official Halal and Kosher School Lunch Pilot Proposal. Uddin hopes to push legislature to allocate more funds to feed all of these children.

“Every parent, child, and community has to think the same way. Bring the project, bring the voice. Every voice is counted, and I think we can make a difference,” Uddin said.