Last month, 285 South reported that Gwinnett County Public Schools may add halal hot dogs to school lunch menus next year, after the success of the halal burger. Gwinnett County Public Schools is among just a handful of school systems in the U.S. that offers halal meat. Here's how it all happened, exclusive to 285 South.
It was October 28th, 2021. Yusuf Naviwala was sitting in the cafeteria of Trickum Middle School in Lilburn. His close friend Max was next to him. Today’s lunch would be different - different from the days when he begrudgingly ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He opened the container labeled “HALAL FOOD.” Max opened a white paper bag that had a giant red oval shaped sticker on it, with two big yellow letters on it: “HB” And in smaller black letters: “100% Halal Beef.”
After all this time, was it really happening?
The burger looking back at Yusuf was among the first halal burgers to be served in a public school in Georgia. Would it taste good? He took his first bite.
The story of how Yusuf’s halal burger came to be is the culmination of a surprising cross-cultural friendship between two boys, of two mothers’ love for their sons, of shifting demographics in the suburban South, and of a willingness of communities to step outside of their comfort zones and work together towards a shared goal.
Since Yusuf was in fifth grade, he ate the same thing, almost every day, for lunch - a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He didn't have much choice. The then 11-year-followed a halal diet - which meant he couldn't eat the burgers, chicken nuggets, or hot dogs being offered in his school cafeteria. Even cinnamon buns, which he loved, were off limits for him because they were served in the same tray as the chicken tenders.
“I didn’t like the PB and jelly every single day. And I know it costs money. Why should we be eating something we don’t like that costs money?” the now-13 year-old Yusuf told me. His mom, Sophia Jetpuri-Naviwala, had dragged him out of his room to speak with me (he had been sulking in his room after he brought home a bad test grade.)
Yusuf’s struggle with the PBJ would, however, be overcome. Partly because of his friendship with Max.
Yusuf and Max had first met as fourth graders at Arcado Elementary in Lilburn. Yusuf had been bullied regularly (“he didn’t even understand half the time when he was being bullied” said Sophia) and Max was popular, friends with everyone. But despite those surface differences, their friendship was instantaneous. With Max on his side, the bullying got better. “Having Max with him made such a big difference… he ended up having like that bridge to kind of get through to everyone else,” said Sophia.
Their friendship deepened - Yusuf and Max had regular play dates where they would play Fortnite or cook or go on excursions like rock climbing or go-Karting.
Sophia admits that helping Yusuf cultivate that friendship with Max didn’t come naturally to her. Their family had always stuck with socializing with people in their own Muslim community. Even simple things like the fact that Max had a dog, felt so different. “Max actually has a little Beagle dog that Yusuf just fell in love with. (Muslims are generally discouraged from keeping dogs in their homes).
Yusuf said he thinks he was hanging out in Max’s mom's kitchen (but he can’t remember exactly) when he first mentioned halal meat.
Now, Max’s mom is Rachel Petraglia, who happens to be the culinary coordinator for Gwinnett County Public Schools.
“I just asked, can she put halal meat? Because I don’t like the pb and jelly.”
That was back in 2020, just before the pandemic. While Yusuf went back to video games and school work, Sophia decided to do whatever she could to advocate for halal meat options. “It was my son’s voice that empowered me to basically harass everyone in our district for a year
,” Sophia wrote in a Facebook post.
The first email she sent was to follow up with Max’s mom, Rachel. The issue reached the School Nutrition Program at GCPS. The department, led by Karen Halford, recognized the need for more options. By the end of 2020, thanks in part to their joint efforts, a whole new vegetarian line of menu items were on offer. Students following a halal diet had way more options: everything from bean burgers to veggie sub sandwiches to bean and cheese burritos. But halal meat remained elusive.
Over a year later, in April 2021, Sophia connected with members of the Muslim community in Gwinnett who had separately been pushing for halal meat options in schools - among them - Gwinnett residents Rahim Shah and Sana Sattar. They combined forces and met with the new superintendent Calvin Watts, who seemed eager to work with the Muslim community. The momentum continued to build. Sophia researched other school halal meat programs in the country and provided information about suppliers. By the summer of 2021, the GCPS School Nutrition Program was doing taste tests of the halal burger.
In October 2021, GCPS piloted the burgers. Halal certified burgers were offered in five schools in the county: Brookwood High School, Parkview High School, Creekland Middle School, Trickum Middle School, and Arcado Elementary. Superintendent Watts, Gwinnett County School Board Chair Everton Blair and State Senators Sheikh Rahman and Nikki Merritt even came out to the momentous unveiling of the burger.
3,000 halal burgers were served in those three months. GCPS decided to expand the program and offer the burgers to all county schools.
Since then, GCPS has served 43,000 halal-certified burgers in school cafeterias.
"We are pleased to offer culturally acceptable foods to our students. Procurement of high-quality products for our program is so important and to have found a burger that is also Halal certified is a win-win!," said Halford, Director of the School Nutrition Program.
And even though the halal burger isn’t on the menu every day (it’s offered once a week at high schools and every three weeks in elementary and middle schools), parents also say it's win.
The demographics of Gwinnett County Public Schools have changed dramatically in the past 20 years. 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 have to respond to the needs of a changing student body.
The historic move to include the burgers on its school menus is part of that response. Gwinnett County Public Schools didn’t widely publicize the development, but they are now one of just a handful of school districts across the country to offer halal meat to its students. Others are in NYC, Dearborn, San Diego - all in areas with large Muslim populations.
These days, Yusuf isn’t eating just halal burgers at school. He can eat the cinnamon buns too because they’re now offered as an a la carte option - an adjustment that Sophia said Max's mom helped see through.
“Once you've built that relationship with people outside of your own comfort zone, and they get to know you, and understand people's differences, you build that bridge, then it was like, the whole dynamic shifted. It was like, okay, we know you and we love you, let's see what we can do to help you,“ said Sophia.
That may be so, but it doesn’t answer perhaps the most important question in this story. Is the burger good? “Very good,” Yusuf told me, recalling that first bite. “I was very happy.”
Under consideration for next year - halal hot dogs. And there are rumors even of possibly, just possibly, chicken nuggets.