The last thing Dearborn Public Schools’ Food Service Director Jeff Murphy wants to see is students not eating, or tossing out food because they feel like they don’t have any lunch time options.
But that was exactly what was occurring 11 years ago, when the schools introduced a pilot program offering halal meats at a school building.
Today, the program has grown— with more more than half of Dearborn’s 32 schools offering halal options for Muslim students, with , , and being added to that list this year.
But making provisions for menus is a complex matter—one that’s decided on several factors, including the population of the school and the needs of an ethnically diverse community.
“I expect that the number of schools that will want halal options will grow,” said Murphy, who began working for the district when the pilot program was introduced.
“We’re a business, and we see the students and parents as our customers,” he added. “This is about meeting their needs.”
Growing Halal Needs
Halal rules are an integral part of Islamic practice, and include not only how the animal is slaughtered and preparation of meat, but also stipulations about types of animals that may not be eaten and abstaining from alcohol.
In Dearborn and worldwide, many restaurants have begun offering halal meats to cater to a growing Muslim customer base. For example, Dearborn's is the area's first halal Mexican restaurant; some McDonald's and Ram's Horn restaurants also offer halal.
In Dearborn Public Schools, some east end buildings have Arab-American student populations of 90 percent or more, according to district spokeman Dave Mustonen. Not all of those students are Muslim, but enough are to make offering halal options a necessity.
Without the halal options, Muslim students would either need to make sure they ate only non-meat cafeteria foods, or bring a lunch from home, entiely cutting them out of the school lunch system.
But providing a halal menu in Dearborn does incur additional cost. Murphy said that on average, halal meats are 30 percent more expensive than typical meat. Recently, the district agreed to contract with a Dearborn grocer to provide halal meat, which will cost $228,000.
Though the halal meat is more expensive, Murphy said the increased cost has largely been offset by and increased participation in the school lunch program.
“We have more students buying lunches," he said, "which is good."
The school lunch program is separate from the general fund in that the entire program is financed through lunch sales, be it in the form or support from the federal free and reduced lunch program or from sales. That means that the menu must be designed to meet the expectations of parents, Murphy said.
The district has tried to meet the needs of other groups, as well. Murphy said that fish is served on Friday, meeting a requirement of observant Catholics during Lent.
Planning and Preparation
Halal menus differ from school to school, with the most options being offered at facilities located on the city’s east end. The menus are planned by Murphy and his staff months in advance, and halal foods are added when a principal, or parents, begin to ask for the option.
Kate Casa, a spokeswoman for in Dearborn, said the bottom line is that all children need healthy, nutritious meals.
“To the extent that halal meals are healthy meals, ACCESS encourages every effort to promote healthy eating among children,” she said. “Teaching healthy eating habits pays for itself down the line."