PATERSON, NJ - An initiative to ensure healthy and full meals for a large segment of Paterson Schools students was launched Monday when, for the first time, Halal food options became available at John F. Kennedy High School.
According to Superintendent Eileen Shafer, the program will also launch at Paterson School # 5 where she believes as many as 30 percent of the students will choose the new option while 15 percent may do so at JFK to comply with religious dietary requirements. The program is projected to eventually reach every school in the city, Shafer added.
On hand was Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman, a former member Paterson City Council, who explained the religious significance of Halal culinary fare.
“Halal meat such as chicken, cattle, or goats, is slaughtered and prepared to follow the Islamic way,” Akhtaruzzaman said. “Muslims do not eat pork. For food to qualify as Halal, it cannot be fried or mixed with other food that is non-Halal.”
As an example, Akhtaruzzaman said that the meat of traditional American pepperoni pizza would be replaced by turkey to meet Halal requirements.
Citing cost as an impediment previously Akhtaruzzaman, a native of Bangladesh, said that efforts to introduce Halal food options to the school’s menus date back to 2011. “We tried back then and the school board was open to it. However the only place we could get Halal food was from Dearborn, Michigan. It was too expensive."
Meals to feed as many as 500 students were prepared at JFK on the first day of the pilot program Dave Buchholtz, Director of Food Services, said. While the food trucked to the school is all the same its in the preparation, which food services have been specially trained in, that makes the difference.
As hundreds of hungry students descended upon the school’s cafeteria at lunchtime, food service specialist Anilgros Cahuana stood behind the counter and handed out Halal prepared chicken patty sandwiches along with menu items including vegetables, fruit, and salad.
18-year old brother Saif Jamhour and his 16-year old brother Saif Jamhour said they moved with their family to Paterson only four months ago from Jordan. Both students at Kennedy’s School of Business Technology Marketing and Finance (BTMF), they said they were glad to have the opportunity to choose a Halal option.
“A lot of times I didn’t eat anything in the cafeteria at lunch besides salads,” Mohammed said. “I am happy that I can now have food that is acceptable.”
Also standing in line was 9th grade student Safwan Alsaidi. Despite only living in Paterson for a short time Alsaidi said he has already chosen a restaurant that caters to those preferring Halal food citing the hot dogs at Al Helal Meat and Fish on East Railway Avenue as his favorite Halal entree.
Congratulating school officials while noting the city’s rich ethnic diversity was Mayor Andre Sayegh who declared that with the pilot program in place Paterson is showing its place as “a city of progress and a leader in cultural competency.”
The previous lack of a Halal food option meant that “there were a number of students in Paterson schools that were not afforded three meals a day,” Board of Education Commissioner Nakima Redmon said.
“It is very important for them to have access to good food that also considers their culture.”