Illustration: Schoolchildren are served lunch.
Illustration: Schoolchildren being served lunch. Photo by Dreamstime
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Getting schoolchildren to eat green vegetables is anything but easy. Getting students in ultra-Orthodox schools to eat these vegetables as part of their school lunch could soon become impossible.

Representatives of ultra-Orthodox groups have been petitioning the government, in meetings and through correspondence since last October, to exempt their schools from the legal requirement to serve leafy dark green vegetables as part of a menu eligible for federal funding.

Their reason has nothing to do with the taste of spinach, kale, or cabbage. It is because these and other leafy greens might be infested with tiny insects that would render them non-kosher. The groups have asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to find substitutes that would maintain the nutritional benefits of these vegetables without having ultra-Orthodox children risk eating food that might contradict their dietary laws.

It is an issue that relatively few in the Jewish community pay much attention to, and given the reluctance of most Jewish groups to negotiate with the federal government over funding, due to their reluctance to ask the government for special preferences tailored to any religious group, ultra-Orthodox activists find themselves alone in the battleground.

Leafy green vegetables are only one of the concerns that drive advocates of the ultra-Orthodox community to engage with the federal government despite their lack of broad communal support. In recent years, for example, as the holiday of Sukkot approaches, representatives of Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella organization representing American Haredi communities, works with the Transportation Security Administration and with the Customs and Border Protection Agency to make sure Jewish travelers carrying the “Four Species” that make up the ritual lulav and etrog are allowed to go through airport security whether entering or exiting the country.

Agudath Israel also stood at the forefront of the campaign against the use of revealing X-ray scanning technology at airport security checkpoints, citing concerns over modesty of travelers.

This recent move by ultra-Orthodox activists follows complaints from school administrators at Haredi-run schools who found it difficult to comply with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 which went into effect this school year. The law, aimed at fighting childhood obesity by making school lunches healthier, allocated $4.5 billion for school lunch programs for the next five years, but it requires public and private schools receiving federal lunch assistance to adhere to a new set of nutritional guidelines. These guidelines include limiting grain consumption and replacing refined grains with whole grains; requiring each student to be served at least half a cup of vegetables per meal with an emphasis on dark-green and red-orange vegetables; and imposing limits on sodium intake. Federal subsidies for lunches are conditioned on schools adhering to these requirements.

Ultra-Orthodox schools took issue with two of the measures. One problem stemmed from limiting the amount of grain-based foods served at schools. Administrators noted that for the purpose of saying the blessing over the bread (HaMotzi) and the blessing on nourishment (Birkat Hamazon), students require a certain amount of bread, usually one slice. But that would take up all the grain allocation for a meal and would not allow other grain-based foods on the lunch plate.

In the meeting held in February with USDA officials, representatives of Agudath Israel and of the Jewish Education Project (formerly known as the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York) reached an agreement allowing schools to change the grain consumption as long as it does not exceed a calorie limit determined by the new law. “It was a good result,” said Rabbi Martin Schloss, director of day schools and yeshivas at the Jewish Education Project. “We maintained the calorie cap but solved the religious problems.”

The other issue raised by ultra-Orthodox schools has yet to be resolved. The dark-green vegetables, praised for their nutritious value, pose a real problem for some in the Orthodox community. “The problem of insect infestation has been confirmed by numerous rabbinical authorities and kosher certification agencies, and many schools have raised this problem,” Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel’s Washington director, said in a statement.

Cohen and his colleagues explained to USDA and Department of Education officials in an October 2012 meeting and subsequent communications that purchasing certified insect-free greens would cost four times as much as uncertified vegetables and that hiring inspectors to carefully examine each spinach leaf would also be cost prohibitive.

Furthermore, they noted that if forced to serve broccoli, collard greens, lettuce, kale, mustard greens, spinach, turnip greens or watercress, without proper certification, parents will simply advise their children not to eat the vegetables, thus defeating the cause of making school lunches healthier.

“We are not in any way opposed to changes in school lunches. We think it is a laudable goal to give children more choices,” Cohen said in an interview. “We just want to make sure that everyone’s needs and objectives can be fulfilled.”

The USDA did not respond to questions presented by the Forward regarding food policies for ultra-Orthodox schools.

In an attempt to find a creative solution for the problem caused by the potential presence of minute insects in leafy vegetables, ultra-Orthodox activists have hired the services of a nutritionist to come up with alternative meal options that would provide equal nutritional values while avoiding vegetables viewed as problematic.

The law permits variations to school lunch menus in order to address ethnic and religious requirements as long as they remain within the nutritional guidelines. It is now up to the USDA to determine whether such changes can be made. “There is an understanding that accommodating needs is not a church-state violation,” Cohen said.

Read more at the Forward.