CPS accused of failing to meet religious, dietary needs of Jewish and Muslim students

Mayoral challenger Ald. Ray Lopez is demanding City Council hearings to determine why more CPS schools don’t regularly serve kosher or halal food options.

SHARE CPS accused of failing to meet religious, dietary needs of Jewish and Muslim students
The cafeteria at McAuliffe Elementary School, 1841 N. Springfield Ave.

The cafeteria at McAuliffe Elementary School, 1841 N. Springfield Ave. in Chicago’s Hermosa community.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

As Chicago Public Schools faces renewed criticism for unsatisfactory school meals, students and City Council members want to be sure a lack of kosher and halal food options is also addressed.

Mayoral challenger Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), in calling for hearings to determine why kosher and halal meals are so limited at CPS, accused the district of failing to “adequately meet the religious and dietary requirements of Jewish and Muslim students.”

Faith organizations are also asking the district to improve offerings for those students while ensuring proper oversight in authenticating kosher and halal certifications.

Followers of both religions do not eat pork, and chicken and cow products must be killed and prepared in a particular humane fashion according to the rules of the faiths. Illinois law requires third-party verification of the processes.

Last year, CPS reported only five of the district’s 500-plus schools offered daily halal food options — that’s now up to seven, district officials said Thursday. Eight schools have served kosher meals, and the district will cater kosher food to students at any school if requested.

No wonder, then, that the vast majority of Muslim students at the Far North Side’s Sullivan High School, for one, “said they weren’t getting enough or anything to eat” at school because Aramark, the school system’s longtime food contractor, “doesn’t offer food that is sourced and prepared under Islamic rules,” Lopez’s resolution states. Sullivan is now among the schools serving daily halal meals, but advocates still warn the program is nowhere near sufficient.

The Board of Education this week approved a new $88.5 million food services contract with Aramark and a local operator. Aramark is set to receive $70.4 million of that deal and will still manage the vast majority of school cafeterias.

“You have the option right now as a dietary restriction to go vegan,” Lopez said. “But there’s nothing that accommodates either the Muslim or Jewish traditions.

“At a time when our district is shrinking in population, this would be a great opportunity for us to welcome Jewish and Muslim students into the Chicago Public School system, showing them that we are sensitive to their dietary needs and welcoming to their traditions, so they can feel comfortable enrolling in our public schools.”

A school lunch.

A school lunch. Only about a fifth of CPS schools offer food options that meet the dietary requirements of Jewish and Muslim students.

Associated Press

Lopez accused Aramark and the CPS Offices of Nutrition Support Services and Faith-Based Initiatives of violating their obligation not to “discriminate against the religious practices of their students.”

It also costs those families a lot of money to either send the kids to school with lunches or pay for private school tuition where their dietary needs are met, he said. Or families might not have the means to do so and kids at times opt not to eat at all.

Lopez wants the Committee on Health and Human Relations to shine the light on the problem by taking testimony from officials at Aramark, heads of both CPS offices and from officials of the Jewish United Fund and the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America.

Jason Mojica, director of CPS’ nutrition program, wrote in a letter to Lopez on Thursday that federal guidance recommends districts consider cultural and religious needs, but school systems “do not receive additional reimbursement to cover excess expenses that occur from providing these meal variations.” He said all CPS meals are pork-free, and the district began piloting kosher and halal meals over the last few school years.

The schools serving both halal and kosher meals are Armstrong, Boone, Clinton, Rogers and West Ridge elementaries. Sullivan and Chicago Math & Science high schools also have halal meals, while Edgebrook, McPherson elementaries and Payton College Prep have kosher offerings.

“CPS is interested in working with schools to better meet students’ dietary needs and expand the halal and kosher programs to more schools,” Mojica wrote, encouraging principals interested in the halal or kosher programs to contact district officials.

Asma Ahad, a leader with the Des Plaines-based non-profit Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, or IFANCA, said the issue comes down to nutritional equity and oversight.

“Food security is a real issue. When these kids come to school and aren’t given the proper nutrition, they can’t be mentally and physically at 100%,” Ahad said. “They’re functioning at a suboptimal level. That has short- and longterm implications for their development.”

And proper third-party verification is vital, she said, so students know what they are being served meets dietary and religious guidelines.

Dr. Muhammad Chaudry, IFANCA’s CEO, said “schools should look into it even if there’s only one student. School lunch programs are funded by the government, and any program funded by the government, whether it’s one person or 100 people, they have a duty to serve that person.”

Chaudry, who has advised and put together halal and kosher rules for the military, said halal and kosher food is easily sourced.

Ald. Debra Silverstein (50th), an Orthodox Jew whose Far North Side ward includes both Muslims and a large population of Orthodox Jews, said she was unaware of the nutritional shortcomings at CPS schools until Lopez introduced his resolution.

“CPS does have an obligation to meet the dietary needs of their students. That should apply to Jewish and Muslim students as well,” she said.

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