Washington — 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.