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Advancing an Inclusive Approach to School Meals


school food rally

School food inclusivity rally (@safest)


We as faith leaders are most privileged to cooperate on a project that will benefit our respective communities. For far too long, students who follow religious dietary guidelines have found their public school cafeteria lacks sufficient accommodation in the food offered. Typically students who require a kosher or halal meal have very limited options in school lunch offerings, often choosing to eat nothing. At this time in history, with persistent and growing incidents of discrimination based on religious and racial animus, New York City needs to embrace every possible opportunity to show compassion, inclusivity, and accommodation for all students – and to ensure no child needs to leave the school cafeteria hungry.

It is impossible to know for sure how many students follow religious dietary restrictions. However, with roughly 38 percent of public school students identifying as Muslim or Jewish, it is possible that thousands of students do not participate in current Department of Education School Food programs because of their religious customs. And with 72 percent of the city’s public school students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches – a potential indicator of food insecurity – it is clear that the number of students who could benefit from a halal or kosher meal in school is significant.

Many of us in the Muslim and Jewish faith communities, joined by community groups, have been advocating for years for the Department of Education to offer halal and kosher food options in schools. We know accommodating this request is not easy, given the complexities of a food distribution network that serves meals to approximately 600,000 students each day, second only to the U.S. Military.

Now, after years of advocacy, we are celebrating a key milestone: this year, $1 million has been allocated in the city budget to pilot halal and kosher school lunches in four schools. Thanks to the leadership of City Council Members Chaim Deutsch and Rafael Espinal and Speaker Corey Johnson, this historic funding will provide a solid foundation to pilot halal and kosher food options in city schools.

But funding the pilot is just the beginning. Our campaign is now facing a critical moment to ensure that the city designs and executes a halal and kosher pilot program responsibly, with full inclusion of parents and school communities who will benefit from halal and kosher school lunches.

Comptroller Scott Stringer has already laid forth a blueprint, detailing several options for how such a pilot could be structured. Now that funding for a halal and kosher lunch pilot has been secured, we believe these recommendations merit real consideration by the Department of Education as it plans how to implement the pilot program.

A central element of the Comptroller’s blueprint for piloting halal and kosher school lunches includes the establishment of an advisory committee. This group would include leaders from faith communities, community advocates, school food content experts, food service workers, parents, teachers, and students. The advisory committee could advise and support DOE when selecting schools for inclusion in the pilot, evaluating kitchen space retrofitting needs, developing training programs for food service workers in schools, and coordinating opportunities for community engagement to both raise awareness of the new food offerings and to build trust among parents that halal and kosher food offered in school cafeterias is a legitimate option that meets religious dietary guidelines. An informed advisory body is crucial for successfully serving halal and kosher lunches to students.

Our communities have already been working, informally, in this capacity. Over the past several months, over 50 advocates and leaders from Muslim and Jewish communities have convened in Comptroller Stringer’s office to weigh the complexities and challenges for this campaign and to consider how best to guide and influence this conversation. Now it is time to formalize this role, and become true partners in advancing this important work.

Offering halal and kosher school lunches will benefit all school children by fostering diversity and inclusivity, and ensuring that all children have every opportunity to learn and excel in school. As halal and kosher school lunches are about to become a reality, it is vital that community voices that have been successfully advocating for this cause for years, be recruited to help to make it a reality. All parties want this pilot to be a thoughtful and efficient program, one that will both inform future decision-making on this topic, and positively impact the lives of children who will benefit from a much needed mid-day meal. We are most grateful to Comptroller Stringer and his staff for bringing our faith communities together to demonstrate that unity and diversity can work together. Now it is time to move the work further ahead.

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Rabbi Joseph Potasnik is Executive Vice President, New York Board of Rabbis. Imam Al-Hajj Talib Abdur-Rashid is Chairman, the Association of African American Imams.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email [email protected]

As City and State Politics Fail Us, Time to Rethink New York Metropolitan Area


screenshot 2018 09 24 nyc metro region explorer 2

(image: Department of City Planning)


New York City is the world’s most popular city. We do lots of things exceptionally well here. But one thing we don’t do well is democracy. Voting rates within New York City are at historic lows, and corruption in Albany is at historic highs. Our politics is, in a word, an embarrassment.

But it’s not New Yorkers’ fault.

One of the oldest rules in politics is “divide and conquer,” and anyone who looks at a map of New York City and its metropolitan area, and compares it to a similarly scoped map of other big American cities, will see that we have been divided and conquered by our political boundaries. I’m not talking about gerrymandered districts, which are some of the most obscene in the nation, but something even more fundamental: the borders of our counties and our states.

The United States system of government is designed to operate with four layers: federal, state, county, and locality (city/town/village). This system works relatively well for most cities. Los Angeles, as a city, sits entirely within Los Angeles county, and it’s metropolitan area of 18 million people sits entirely within 4 counties, all of which are located in California. Chicago, as a city, like L.A., sits entirely within a single county: Cook County. It’s metro area of 10 million people inhabit 13 counties that extend into Indiana and Wisconsin, with the amount of “out of state” residents of “Chicagoland” numbering under a million in each state.

New York City simply doesn’t fit the U.S. model. Our city of over 8 million people is one of the only ones in the U.S. to extend beyond a single county: we have five. We call them boroughs here because…history. And each one has government appendages from a less integrated past: presidents, public administrators, courts, sheriffs, district attorneys, museums, and libraries. These institutions all cost taxpayer money to operate, and their opaque nature outside the normal purview of a city government makes them a great place for corruption to emerge. For example, longtime Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hines was a master of using county level institutions to steal public money and punish opponents.

Zooming out to our metropolitan area (aka the “tri-state area,” “NYMetA,” etc.) and things get even more messy: a population of 23 million people spread over 25 counties and four states, with over 12 million living outside New York City and over 4 million living outside New York State. This creates lots of problems: people earning money in New York City and New York State can easily escape its taxes. It makes coordinating regional level solutions to housing and transit much more difficult. It means the municipalities and counties in our metro region can’t build the political clout needed to get things done at the state level because so many of us live in different states!

And what are the results? Our metro region’s tax dollars fund massive corruption. New York is, by some counts, the most corrupt state in the country. We also have the largest amount of debt per resident. New Jersey isn’t far behind when it comes to corruption or debt. Connecticut is, in the words of The Daily Beast, “collapsing.”

Many people blame badly drawn borders for the continued persistence of corrupt, authoritarian governments in the Middle East. (Tragically, misguided U.S. foreign policy hasn’t helped.) We can and should blame outdated political borders for our failing state and local politics here as well.

While that might seem depressing, it’s worth reminding that, over time, borders change, and so does their importance. New trade agreements, political institutions, forms of transit, financial systems, and political alliances have shifted the meaning of borders throughout history. We’re not stuck -- but we do need to think outside our borders and build institutions that reduce the cost and increase the effectiveness of regional collaboration. This type of activity is more important than ever because many policy-makers, business leaders, and futurists are predicting that, during the 21st century, networks of cities -- not nation-states -- will become the primary entities coordinating global political and economic activities. Some people are calling this new political philosophy “municipalism.”

If New Yorkers want to benefit from these new geopolitical trends, we need to build regional, democratic institutions that can represent the interests of all the residents of our metropolitan area.

Yes, we have the Regional Planning Association, the Port Authority, and dozens of other “regional” coordinating entities, but none of them have democratic representation of the public as their core mission: and that’s precisely what we need.

There are many questions to answer: who would New York Metropolitan Area (NYMetA) represent, and how does that representation work? Where and how could it derive economic, cultural, and political legitimacy? Where does it fit in a nation of towns, counties, and states? Could it become its own government layer with its own tax base? Or maybe it could live within civil society: as a political party, a social movement, or maybe a cooperatively run government public policy think tank?

While the idea of a legitimate NYMetA government might seem ridiculous and way off in the distance, the mere idea can be used to challenge the political status quo, which has fortified itself within the existing political borders and relies on our lack of political imagination to retain power.

Discussing and developing a plan for NYMetA enables us to imagine ways outside our antiquated political system that can’t seem to perform simple tasks like keeping the trains running, much less have them running on time.

If New York can’t do it, NYMetA can!

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Devin Balkind is a technologist and nonprofit executive who works on civic technology projects in New York City. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email [email protected]

With Fake Clinics Proliferating, New Yorkers Should Know Their Reproductive Health Care Rights


letitia james andrea miller

Letitia James and Andrea Miller, the authors


When visiting a health care provider, most patients trust that they’ll get a reasonably high standard of medical care and assume that their medical providers will keep their information confidential, and are not actively trying to deceive them. But around the country, 2,700 fake women’s health centers – which sometimes call themselves “crisis pregnancy centers” – are lying to women and giving false information in order to prevent women from having abortions. One hundred of them are here in New York State.

It is imperative that any New York woman or teen who is pregnant, or thinks she might be, can get accurate health care information and knows her rights, including the right to have an abortion.

That’s why the National Institute for Reproductive Health (NIRH) and New York City Public Advocate Letitia James have just released “Know Your Rights,” a public awareness and education brochure, so pregnant New Yorkers, those who might be pregnant, and their families and loved ones, can access accurate information about pregnancy and abortion, regardless of whether a woman chooses to continue her pregnancy or not.

Fake clinics actively trick and lure women into their centers. They set up shop near legitimate health care providers and brand themselves with words like “women’s choices” or “pregnancy resources” to suggest they provide all-options counseling and care to help women and teens make fully informed decisions; they advertise free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds. Inside, these clinics can look and feel like a real doctor’s office — staff wear white coats or medical scrubs, and pamphlets about pregnancy and ultrasound machines are located in exam rooms. The staff will often lie to women, either telling them that they are farther along in their pregnancy than they really are, and that it is too late for an abortion or that it is earlier in pregnancy than they really are, and they should wait before making any decisions.

Fake clinics are often part of national anti-abortion networks, and they target women from low-income communities, communities of color, and immigrant communities. Alarmingly, fake clinics outnumber real abortion providers by as much as four-to-one nationwide.

New York City saw the dangers these fake clinics posed and passed Local Law 17 in 2011, which took effect in 2016, requiring them to disclose that they don’t have a licensed medical provider on site and to keep client information confidential. Unfortunately, many fake clinics fail to comply with this law.

In light of the federal government’s continued attempts to undermine access to abortion and the current Supreme Court’s indifference to the harms posed by fake clinics, New York must work twice as hard to protect our residents’ right to accurate medical information and abortion care. We must retain our reputation as a state that protects and supports women and girls.

NIRH and Public Advocate James are committed to protecting the reproductive health and rights of all New York women. "Know Your Rights," available at the NIRH website, the public advocate website, and in hard copy around the city, provides a list of legitimate health care providers that offer prenatal care and abortion, and information regarding privacy rights.

New York City residents deserve nothing less.

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Letitia James is New York City Public Advocate. Andrea Miller is President of the National Institute for Reproductive Health (NIRH). On Twitter @TishJames and @AMillerNIRH.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email [email protected]



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