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San Diego school offers halal lunches

SAN DIEGO — Walk the halls of Crawford High School and you'll see City Heights in miniature. The neighborhood is home to immigrants from Mexico, Southeast Asia and East Africa.

Several years ago, a group of refugee moms involved with the City Heights nonprofit Mid-City CAN began telling San Diego Unified's Foodservices Director Gary Petill their kids weren't eating lunch.

"All students here eat for free, so you have to ask yourself, why weren't they eating with us before?" Petill said.

Schools qualify for universal free lunches if more than 40 percent of their students come from families that qualify for other kinds of federal assistance.

The students weren't eating because the food wasn't halal. Muslims follow religious rules similar to Kosher dietary laws for meat and dairy.

So earlier this semester, Crawford began offering a halal chicken bowl twice a week.

"It's Mary's Free Range, vegetarian-fed, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, air-chilled organic chicken that you'd find in Whole Foods," Petill said.

He said the pilot program was an easy sell to educators.

"If students are eating, they can learn. If they don't eat, they can't learn," Petill said.

"We really try to work with the communities to best fit the food choices that they have, because we want students to eat," Petill added. "We have a very large Hispanic population so we want to have maybe 'Taco Tuesday' or serve a bean and cheese burrito, or in a community with an Asian community, an Asian chicken bowl."

Petill said since the cafeteria began serving the new chili lime chicken bowl, 300 students who previously didn't eat school lunches are lining up at the cafeteria. The increased participation covers the few extra cents each organic drumstick costs, Petill said.

And some of the students getting in line aren't even Muslim. Seventeen-year-old Rosa Duarte, 17, joined her Muslim friends in student-run campaign for the halal lunches.

"I normally will not eat at school because the food options were not good," Duarte said. "But with the halal chicken drumstick bowl, I actually am eating at school and I have more energy to go through the day and then go to my sports afterwards."

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