Israr Khan is concerned about his 4-year-old daughter's lunch choices at Heritage Primary Elementary.
Since she is enrolled in the state-operated pre-school program, the girl can choose from any of the cafeteria offerings even if they don't align with her Muslim diet or aren't "halal."
"They say it's the kids' choice, but they are 3 (years old) and hardly know what is right or wrong," Khan said.
He and a trio of men attended Tuesday's Lodi Unified school board meeting requesting a new policy that allows parents to accompany their children through the cafeteria line.
At issue is the Muslim diet.
Because of religious beliefs, they are not allowed to eat pork or other meat that is slaughtered improperly. Things such as Jell-O are also off limits because they are made with gelatin, an animal by-product.
In years past, the school district has created many choices for students with special dietary needs such as vegetarians. This includes offering a salad bar on most campuses and cheese pizza as an alternative to the meat version. Schools also serve bean and cheese burritos and cheese nachos.
However, lunchtime at Heritage's pre-school program is instructional time where the teacher's focus is having students make choices, according to Principal Maria Cervantes.
"So if they decide to choose a forbidden food, he or she is allowed to do so," she said.
The district has dealt with this issue in the past at its two pre-school sites, according to Florence Costamagna, director of school readiness and pre-school programs. Only last year, Heritage's participants did not eat lunch in the cafeteria and instead received a snack of graham crackers and milk in the classroom.
At Heritage, 12 percent of its enrollment is Pakistani.
"When they're in pre-school, they're not really ready to make that decision," Cervantes said of students picking the permissible foods. "How do they distinguish between the hamburger they can eat at home and the one at school? That's hard for a 3-and-half-year-old."
Further, the district's pepperoni used on its meat pizza is made of turkey.
"Obviously our turkey or chicken nuggets are not halal," Cervantes added. "But by first grade they pretty much know what they can have."
Community member Shahnawez Khan asked board members Tuesday to adopt a policy to allow parents to accompany their pre-schoolers through the lunch line to make good choices.
Halal at a glanceHalal is an Arabic word meaning lawful or permitted. The opposite of halal is haram, which is unlawful or prohibited. Halal and haram are universal terms that apply to all facets of life, but especially in relation to food, meat, cosmetic and personal care products.
All foods are considered halal, except the following:
— Swine/pork and its byproducts
— Animals improperly slaughtered or dead before slaughtering
— Animals killed in the name of anyone other than Allah
— Alcohol and intoxicants
— Carnivorous animals, birds of prey and land animals without external ears
— Blood and blood byproducts
— Foods contaminated with any of the above products
Source: Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America
"That matter should be resolved quickly because we do not want our kids to eat something forbidden," he said.
Both Costamagna and Catherine Pennington, assistant superintendent of primary education, are working on solutions to be culturally respective of the parents' requests.
"We're exploring additional clarification from the state," Costamagna said of the state funding being tied to the program's three hours of instruction time, including lunch. "I see this as something we can work out as a team."
Cervantes recommended that students bring their own lunch when there is no acceptable item on the menu, but that is not allowed in the state pre-school program, she said. Board president Richard Jones, who is also the president of the local Boys and Girls Club, received a number of phone calls and visits Tuesday from Pakistani families concerned with Heritage's food offerings.
"They think because I am the president and at the Boys and Girls Club, I can solve everything," he told his peers during the meeting's board member comment section. "I made sure they understood I am only one of seven."
Trustees cannot act on items during public comment, but Pennington talked with the group after two men addressed the board Tuesday.
Cervantes, who met with some parents earlier in the day and felt the meeting went well, plans to label the table and color-code the vegetarian and non-vegetarian choices before explaining to students what is available.
The pre-school teacher will also discuss with the Muslim children what foods their parents say is appropriate to eat.
"But ultimately when it comes to lunch, the child makes the final choice. That's a little hard," Cervantes said. "The teacher can't physically stop them from reaching out and picking up what they want to eat."
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