First-time USDA school meal waiver is an action towards equity

School meals allow for flexibility in observance of Ramadan.

A school lunch containing salad, juice, and mjudara.
A school lunch with mujadara, a Middle Eastern rice and lentil dish, prepared and served to students by staff with Hamadeh Educational Services Inc.

In mid-March, the Michigan Department of Education announced they would offer a waiver to allow meal sponsors, or school districts who participate in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, an opportunity to modify their usual service to accommodate students who observe Ramadan. These students refrain from eating during typical daylight hours, including the time that school meals are served.

School lunch and breakfast are among a list of child nutrition programs supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). State agencies who administer these meals, like the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), were given the notice to apply for this waiver, or approval to modify traditional meal operations in late February. This marked the first time the USDA has offered this flexibility for this reason.

According to communication from the USDA, “FNS has determined that this waiver facilitates the purpose of the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program, as these children attend school and are eligible to receive school meals but are unable to consume them during the school day because they are fasting in observance of Ramadan.” The USDA states further that the waiver is supportive of the USDA’s Equity Plan, which aims to promote nutrition security and health equity through USDA’s programs.

This year, Ramadan began on March 12 and will end April 9. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar and is widely considered the month in which the Quran, the Islamic holy book was first revealed. During the month-long fast, practicing Muslims are expected to fast, or abstain from eating and drinking from dawn to sunset each day of the month. The primary meals are consumed at pre-dawn, known as suhur, and at sunset, called iftar. Fasting during the month of Ramadan is a pillar of Islam and a time for reflection and prayer.

For the Michigan Department of Education's School Nutrition Programs, the decision to apply for use of this waiver was an easy one.

“With Michigan being home to a sizable Muslim population, we knew we had to try and make this available,” said Emily Mattern, the interim supervisor of the School Nutrition Programs at MDE. “We learned about the waiver on a Monday, the first full day of Ramadan, and received notice of approval a week later. It was a quick turnaround with very little lead time but anticipate the USDA will be interested in seeing how this goes.”

This waiver builds on previous actions the USDA implemented during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic to allow flexibility in meal service, time, meal patterns and distribution. Specifically, this waiver will allow modifications for meals to be made available in non-congregate, or non-group settings outside of the mealtime window of 10am to 2pm and flexibility around required meal components in high schools.

For students and families who attend a school implementing this waiver, they will be able to take home food to consume after dusk or in the evening. Mattern shared they aren’t too sure as to how many school districts will seek out this application of the waiver locally but have heard of at least a handful that intend to take advantage of the opportunity.

“We expect this waiver will allow school meals programs to serve meals to a lot more kids that would typically not eat lunch during the day due to fasting," she said. "Additionally, this waiver supports enhanced food security, by allowing a child to take some food home.”

Jennifer Hofer serves as the director of food service with Hamadeh Educational Services, Inc, an educational service provider based in Dearborn Heights. Through Hofer’s leadership, the organization provides meal service for Star International, Universal Learning, Universal and Noor International public school academies.

As the director who helps nourish and feed many Muslim children in southeast Michigan, Hofer ultimately decided to not pursue the waiver this year primarily due to limited lead time to prepare as best as they could, and the fact that spring break falls during Ramadan.

“I hope this opportunity is offered in coming years as we will definitely consider it for the future," she said. 

Hofer has observed the typical declines in meal service during Ramadan and sees the value in the waiver.

“Our cafeteria sounds like crickets during Ramadan, and this is what we expect and plan for each year," she said, recalling an example in one of her buildings that usually serves 1,000 meals a day to a drop of about 150 during Ramadan.

As a self-described American Muslim-convert, Hofer has been in her food service role for 25 years and appreciates the growing awareness and requests she has received recently to share how she tailors meals for her largely Arabic student population.

“When I started in the late 90s, we were serving a large number of students from Yemen and Middle Eastern descent and we wanted to make sure they were getting meals they were familiar with, while also introducing them to American style meals. We continue to offer this mix in all our schools. I might offer shawarma on Monday and a halal hot dog on Tuesday.”

According to Samia Hamdan, Child Nutrition Programs Director with USDA FNS, Midwest Region, this waiver is responsive to school districts who have been asking about how best to accommodate students who observe Ramadan.

“Our Midwest region has taken the lead on this because of the large Muslim population in Michigan and throughout the Midwest,” she said.

Hamdan confirms this waiver is reflective of the USDA’s commitment to equity and their focus to provide expanded kosher and halal food options and guidance. This effort ensures also supports nutrition security by ensuring children have access to school meals, and also supports school districts who may otherwise see decreased participation and revenue during Ramadan. USDA will monitor the usage of the waivers and continue to work towards ensuring equal access to meal service. Four states in the Midwest Region have currently been approved for the waivers. These include Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.

Michigan State University Extension partners with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to provide Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education, or SNAP-Ed. SNAP-Ed focuses on good nutrition, stretching food dollars, living physically active lifestyles and engaging partners to build healthier communities.

MSU Extension staff are dedicated to working together to ensure that programming is delivered to diverse audiences, produces equitable impacts for all participants, and demonstrates partnership and inclusion for all groups.

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