SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Afghan refugees already have a lot to get used to when coming to a new place like Sacramento – a new language, government, basically a whole new society.
Families even have to learn about new foods. The adjustment has led to some kids not eating when they’re at school.
With so many big changes in these tiny lives, the Sacramento City School District is coming up with a solution to make sure kids see one thing that’s familiar — their food.
Options in the school cafeteria used to be limited for Fasil Amin, a fourth grader and recent afghan refugee who moved to Sacramento in 2017.
“When we told the teacher about it they were like these are Halal and they told us where did they got it from and what is in there. So now we are kind of feeling good about it to eat it," said Fasil.
SCUSD began offering a Halal option shortly after learning more Afghan children would be coming to Sacramento following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in Summer 2021.
What is Halal?
Halal determines if a food product meets Islamic dietary restrictions. Standards include how food — such as meat — is killed, processed, and cooked.
"We're labeling everything," said Diana Flores the Executive Director of the SCUSD Nutrition Department.
Through collaboration within schools in the district, Flores and her team were able to test launch Halal items at Fasil’s school Pacific Elementary.
"So, right now I'm buying online with a credit card because that's the only way I can get it right now," said Flores. "There is a company called Miramar that specializes in Halal foods, and they do sell to school districts. But because of supply chain shortages, they're unable to fill orders right now. So they have a retail online purchasing."
Sacramento's Afghan community
Even before 2021, the U.S. Census data from 2019 shows Sacramento has one of the largest populations of Afghan refugees in the country. As more students from Afghanistan arrived, Flores says she knew there needed to be changes.
"I went to a few of our schools to see how their students were adapting to our meals. I realized that most of them were not eating," Flores said. "They would grab some fruit and milk, that was it. I wanted to communicate with them but couldn't."
Flores and her team also created flyers in Dari to send home to parents so they could better understand what the school was serving.
Like the Amin Family.
“When they send the flyer I saw it and my children also told me about the Halal food and they was really happy," said Hamidullah Amin, father of Fasil.
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The impact on the cafeteria
ABC10 went to Fasil's school — Pacific Elementary — for lunch. There ABC10 met Hilda Jaime who is the Food Service Lead running the kitchen.
Jaime's been cooking school lunches for seven years in SCUSD and says the Halal meals mean a lot to Muslim students.
"Last time when we serve the hamburgers, the big ones they're so happy about it," she said. "They even tell us thank you so much, tell my sister she's in second grade. Like if we know who their sister is. They're telling us to tell the little ones that that's something that they can eat."
Jaime says her kitchen severs about 80 Halal lunches a day.
"We've been adding a couple more items," she said. "Like right now chicken nuggets is the one that we're serving today."
Meanwhile, Flores tries to order Halal foods that look like traditional school food items — for example, orange chicken.
"So it looks kind of similar," She said. "So you don't have kids saying why did they get that? Why did they get that? You know, we just try to match it to the entrée. So tomorrow, we have hot dogs on the menu for all the students. But then we have Halal hot dogs too."
Fasil says it tastes similar to what he eats at home, which makes his father happy.
"Now they eat at school which is good for their health too," said Hamidullah Amin.
"..More than just a job"
This is more than just a job for Flores, which is why she has been with the district for 15 years.
"I think for me, and for our program, it makes those students feel at home in a city they've never been in before, at a school they've never been to before," Flores said. "It makes the school an inviting place for them. I think that is what drives us."
She adds the district hopes to one day have Halal options available daily for all students like they do with their vegetarian food, but with supply chain shortages, it's been tough to get food at all.
Meet Naweed Ahmadi
We want to take a moment to introduce you to Naweed Ahmadi – he works in the district's nutrition services IT department and recently emigrated from Afghanistan for security reasons.
Naweed stepped up in a major way for the district. He speaks four languages, which is a huge asset to the growing and changing student population. He was the one who translated the flyers that were sent home to parents in Dari so they knew that halal food was coming to Pacific Elementary.
Naweed says he was happy to help give parents peace of mind about what food was being served at their kids' school.
"It's really a great feeling," said Naweed. "Because as a father, I have two kids when we moved here, so especially when you see that the district is helping you that much that's caring that much about your children, to be healthy to eat healthy foods, and at the same time to be active on their studies."
And while Naweed is helping families in the district, he is also trying to stay connected with his own family who is still back in Afghanistan.
"Everyone wants to be close to their parents," Naweed said. "So me, my kids, everyone miss my parents. And we all miss them. So I hope yeah when did that we could be joined back maybe here. So yeah, we are willing for that. But maybe it will take some time, but we can wait for that. yeah."
He says his mom has still not met her grandchildren – in person, yet.