Cultural Relevancy in the Cafeteria

This lesson seeks to open students’ eyes to the variety of experiences that they and their classmates have at lunchtime. Students learn about the dietary guidelines of various ethnic and religious groups and then analyze their cafeteria's food offerings.
Grade Level


Activities will help students:

  • understand how students’ home cultures, religions and ethnicities affect their school lunch experiences;
  • develop empathy and respect for students of different ethnicities and other religious backgrounds and faith traditions;
  • share their learning with other students, and
  • present to school administrators what they have learned and a proposal based on their learning.
Essential Questions
  • How do students’ cultural backgrounds affect them at school?
  • What dietary rules do different religions have?
  • How can school cafeterias accommodate and respect students from diverse ethnic, religious and other backgrounds?
  • How can students participate in making schools more culturally relevant?


ethnicity [ eth-nis-i-tee ] (noun) Identity that is based on cultural similarity. Ethnicity may be based on common heritage, ways of life, nationality and/or religion.

halal [ huh-lahl ] (noun) An Arabic word meaning “permitted.” The opposite of halal is haram, which means prohibited. For Muslims, most foods are halal, but some are haram. For school lunches, haram foods include: products made from pigs, animals that were not slaughtered according to Muslim laws, carnivorous animals, and blood and blood byproducts.

kosher [ koh-sher ] (noun) A Hebrew word meaning “proper” or “pure.” Kosher refers to a system of dietary rules based on Jewish law. Kosher food excludes: shellfish, products made from pigs, and blood and blood byproducts. Kosher rules also define how to slaughter animals, and exclude those that were not slaughtered properly. They also prohibit eating meat and dairy products together.

vegetarian [ vej-i-tair-ee-uhn ] (noun) The practice of eating only foods that come from plants rather than animals. For many Hindus, vegetarianism is part of sadhana or spiritual practice, although Hinduism does not require that Hindus be vegetarian. Rather, it identifies the benefits of not eating meat.



1. In this lesson, you will be thinking about ethnicity and religion and the foods that students eat—or don’t eat—at school. Start by defining terms. What does the word “ethnicity” mean? As a class, come up with a definition of it. Then read Dietary Guidelines.

2. Divide the class into groups of three. Assign each group a religious “identity.” Print out A Visit to the Cafeteria. With your classmates, go to the school cafeteria. Walk through the line with the members of your group. Fill in the chart on the handout as you go.

3. Bring your completed forms back to the classroom. Think about how you would feel if you were a member of the groups with dietary restrictions you were assigned. How would you feel going through the cafeteria line? Think, too, about the lunches that students bring with them to school. Do you sometimes see foods that are not familiar to you? Have you asked your classmates about such foods? Have you tasted them? How comfortable are you and your classmates with the variety of foods people bring from home? Write your thoughts in a journal entry. Then discuss them with the members of your group.

4. Report to your classmates what you found out on your trip to the cafeteria.

5. Now that you have learned about foods that some Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and other vegetarian students can and cannot eat, teach what you have learned to the rest of the students in your school. With the group that you went to the cafeteria with, make a poster to share what other students should know on the subject. Use whatever materials you like. You may want to draw, or cut out pictures from magazines or construction paper. Be sure that your poster tells people which ethnic group’s food or which religion’s food rules you are showing. Get permission from the school’s leaders to put the posters in the cafeteria where other students will be able to see them.

6. How can you affect what foods your school’s cafeteria serves? To get some ideas, read these articles:

Discuss possible strategies as a class. Come up with a plan. For example, you might want to explore different ways that your cafeteria could offer culturally-appropriate food, such as buying it from a special caterer. Use the results of your research to present a plan to school or district administrators. You might also want to start a letter-writing campaign to your state legislators to ensure that foods meeting religious requirements are available at school cafeterias in your state.


Thinking About How You Learn

Effective learners know how they learn best. Think about how you learned the material in this lesson. Use these questions to guide your thinking:

  • Did I learn best when the teacher read aloud?
  • Did I learn best when I read?
  • Did I learn best when I talked about what I had heard or read?
  • Did I learn best when I created a visual presentation?
  • Did I learn best when I wrote?
  • If I were going to change this lesson (not the content, just the activities) to suit my learning style, how would I change it? Why would the changes make it easier for me to learn?

You might want to find other students in your class who learned the way you did. You can talk together about your learning style, and adapt future lessons to suit your preferred ways of learning.

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