School dinners: The debate over pork-free alternatives for Muslim kids in Europe
Some children at a school in western France aren’t being given a chance to clear their plates.
What are your memories of school dinners?
Even now certain smells remind me of standing in line waiting to see what would end up on my plate.
Cheese puffs, cornflake pie and green custard (if you went to school in the UK in the eighties you’ll know what I’m talking about!) Those were my favourite dishes and I remember proudly showing my empty plate to the teacher at the end of lunch time to prove I’d eaten every morsel.
But some children at a school in western France aren’t being given a chance to clear their plates.
That’s after the Mayor of Saint Seurin decided to scrap the pork-free option from the school’s menu.
Explaining how the move isn’t ‘politically-motivated’ and more to do with financial reasons, Marcel Berthomé says his town is in debt and can’t afford to cook two meals a day meaning those who don’t eat pork would be given a side dish on pork days.
It’s something Palestinian-American Safiya takes objection with.
She says: “I don’t think this is about price at all because the last time I checked a cheese pizza costs less to make than a pepperoni pizza and they could easily replace the pork with some cheap protein like lentils or chick peas.
“It’s probably a jab at Muslims. People can choose to have good manners, kind hearts and common courtesy, you can’t force them to do these things. One of the teachings of Islam is that it protects the religious freedoms of Christians and Jews. People are allowed freedom of religion so Muslims should not be treating people this way, but they’re not Muslims so they’re not following this. I don’t know if their religion teaches them to treat us well but they’re not doing.”
Iraqi-born Ali Ibrahim doesn’t agree though. He says: “Pork is haram for Muslims and I don't want my son to eat it but I would respect the school’s decision and send my son with meal from home. France is not a Muslim country and I can't force the school to follow my wish.”
One local mum in the town spoke to French newspaper France Bleu and said that parents weren’t consulted and, as they pay taxes, it shouldn’t be up to the mayor to decide what goes on their children’s plate.
But Mr Berthomé insists the decision wasn’t intended to damage relations with Muslims in the area. His office also said the new menu would have an effect on less than 15 children. Mr Berthomé said: “Some children don’t eat pork, some don’t eat fish and some don’t eat beef. This is not a politically motivated decision. I do not want Muslims to feel stigmatized. The town is in debt and we cannot afford to cook two different dishes a day. So, if you’re not happy, don’t eat at school!”
Born in the UK, Claire Iqbal and her family lived in the UAE for many years before relocating to France three years ago.
While she acknowledges that meal choices may not suit every diner, overall she appreciates the French way of serving children’s dinner.
She explains: “Like us, it seems these families pay for their school dinners so offering them something they really can't eat - whether that’s on religious or moral grounds - just doesn't seem on. The Muslim children in my daughter’s class are offered an alternative on days when they serve pork. I imagine in their school it would be the same for vegetarians too. For the specific school that has stopped offering a non-pork option it seems a weird situation that people are trying to politicise. It seems like the school is trying to cut down on costs by only serving an omnivore menu which is fair enough, although it’s odd to do it in the middle of the term.
“It feels like some people have jumped on to the Muslim aspect of it but as a policy it also excludes vegetarians, pescatarians, Jews, certain Hindus and others.
“The fact is, if kids can't eat the food available, whatever their diet, they can bring a packed lunch. Kids have very little choice in school from what I’ve seen but it tends to be decent food. Mine eat a three or four course lunch every day but have no snack breaks. And they get good, grown up food, and no plastic cups even for the tiny ones. From my perspective, it's really good. It's broadened their horizons and it teaches them table manners.”