Good news for Gwinnett’s Muslim students: the Gwinnett County School Nutrition Department may add halal certified hot dogs to its lunch menu in the new school year. That’s in part because the halal burgers many Gwinnett schools have been offering since October, have been so popular.
“In the beginning, when the burgers were on the menu at the five pilot schools, the district served nearly 3,000 Halal-Certified Burgers a month. Today, the district is serving more than 11,000 Halal-Certified Burgers a month,” said Bernard Watson, Director of Community and Media Relations at Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS).
He says the genesis of the decision was a meeting between Muslim community members and the former superintendent Alvin Wilbanks, and later the current superintendent, Calvin Watts.
Today, Muslim students who follow a halal diet either have the option of a vegetarian meal or a halal burger, depending on the day of the week. GCPS joins a handful of other school districts around the country that now offer halal meat - among them, schools in NYC, Dearborn, San Diego. They’re still in the minority though - just 1.9 percent of schools in the country offer halal or kosher meat menu items, according to a 2018 report from the School Nutrition Association.
GCPS is among the most diverse and rapidly changing school districts in the state - in 1996, its student population was 80 percent white. As of 2020, it’s 80 percent non-white. The dramatic demographic shift has meant that school administrators must constantly respond to the changing needs of its students.
But the move to include halal burgers- and to consider adding halal hot dogs next year - is not just about the food and the demographics. It’s also a sign of the growing organizing power of both Muslims and young students in the county.
Earlier this year, 14-year-old Noor Ali, a freshman at the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology, launched a petition urging the superintendent to establish Eid al-Fitr as a school holiday. So far, it has almost 9,000 signatures. It’s not on the table for next year, according to a statement from GCPS, but they “look forward to engaging our community, including the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council (SSAC) in discussions about future calendars.”
The victories aren’t just about halal meat or Eid, they’re about a community growing into its political power, says Shafina Khabani, the Executive Director of the Georgia Muslim Voter Project (GAMVP). “Our communities are realizing through the halal meat program and through the Eid petition that's gotten a lot of attention, that their voice matters and that their voice can make a difference,” said Khabani.
Khabani says GAMVP’s staff has doubled in since the 2021 Senate runoffs in Georgia. She’s worked alongside many of the youth organizers and has been amazed by their commitment.
“We have so many Muslim youth who are reaching out and wanting to be involved and saying, 'what can we do to help.' I think that they're fearful for their futures….they look all of these things and they actually want to do something to shape their future.”