Takeaways from IFANCA’s Interactive Session at the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior (SNEB) Annual Conference

Due to a lack of access to halal foods, Muslim students nationwide experience food insecurity at critical points throughout their school day. This has direct implications for student wellness, academic performance, and overall development.

IFANCA hosted an interactive session in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AAND), and Chartwells Higher Education Dining Services to highlight the barriers and opportunities for students who observe halal. The panel was held during the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior (SNEB) annual conference in Washington, D.C., on July 23, 2023. This initiative is part of IFANCA’s broader mission to address food and nutrition security. 

The session “Ensuring Equitable Access to Halal Foods for K-12 and College Students: Stories from Food Equity Advocates” brought together an accomplished interdisciplinary panel of food equity advocates:  

  • Heather Hopwood, senior technical advisor with USDA Food and Nutrition Service Child Nutrition Programs  
  • Ridwan Abdul Rashid, youth activist and sophomore student at Loyola University in Chicago, Illinois 
  • Dr. Anne Mathews, professor at the University of Florida and lead investigator of the national research survey “Halal Food Access and Nutrition Security of Muslim College Students in the United States” conducted by the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 
  • Nadeem Zafar, division president northeast at Chartwells Higher Education Dining Services 
  • YaQutullah I. Muhammad, registered dietitian with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and past chair of the AND Religious Member Interest Group (RMIG) 


Food and Nutrition Security

The USDA defines food security as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” The USDA also recognizes the importance of nutrition security, ensuring that all people have consistent and equitable access to healthy, safe, affordable foods essential to optimal health and well-being. 

Heather Hopwood shared that food insecurity and malnourishment can lead to underdevelopment and underperformance. Under guidance from the Biden administration, the USDA is committed to addressing the needs of communities that have traditionally been underserved and left out of nutrition programs, such as the national school lunch and breakfast program, and ensuring that all people have access to foods that meet their faith-based and cultural dietary needs.  


Barriers to Food and Nutrition Equity for Halal-Observing Students

K-12 Students 

Prompted by lived experiences of hunger while attending Sullivan High School in Chicago, IL, Ridwan Abdul Rashid and several of his fellow students led a survey to convey to the administration that Muslim students were going hungry at school and to explain how this impacted their behavior and well-being.

Sullivan High School is a Chicago Public School where approximately 15% of the students identify as Muslim. Many of these students come from immigrant or refugee households.

The survey results indicated that access to halal options is incredibly important to students: 

  • 87.9% of students stated that halal is “very important” to them, and the remaining students said it was “important” or “fairly important.”  
  • 61.1% of students said they bring lunch from home, and 75.8% of these students said this is because they “do not like the current halal options at school.”  
  • Nearly all of the ninety-one students surveyed said they “always,” “often,” or “sometimes” feel hungry at school because “there are no suitable halal options.” 


University Students

According to the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), American Muslims are more likely to be students than other groups in the U.S. (13% vs. 3-5%). They also tend to be more active in their faith than their non-Muslim peers.

Similar to the Sullivan High School K-12 survey, AAND’s national Halal Food Access and Nutrition Security survey of college students across the U.S. found that there is a strong relationship between halal-observing students experiencing food insecurity and a lack of suitable halal options. 

The survey results will be made available to the public in early 2024, but Dr. Anne Mathews, principal investigator of the survey, presented the preliminary findings during our SNEB session: 

  • Over half of the halal-observing Muslim respondents classify as food insecure, and approximately one-third (31.1%) fall under the category of “very low” food security.  
  • A lack of access to halal foods impacts student GPA, course load, and other aspects of student and personal life. 
  • Regardless of food security status, the majority of survey respondents shared that halal is an important consideration when making food decisions.  
  • For these students, it is “very important” that products be certified halal.  
  • Additionally, the majority of students who were surveyed said they look for halal certification when purchasing food. The most frequent reason they gave for not being able to access halal foods on campus is because these items aren’t labeled.  


Trust, Transparency, and Accountability

Trust, transparency, and oversight are key components to developing credibility across the halal supply chain. Therefore, third-party engagement and relationship building are essential to the success of any halal foodservice program.

In asking the audience, “Is your halal my halal?” YaQutullah Ibraheem Muhammed pointed out that not all Muslims observe halal in the same way or to the same extent, which is why it’s important to have clear standards and guidelines that are followed and cited in a halal program. Third-party organizations such as IFANCA establish clear guidelines, implement training, and provide oversight. This enables schools, foodservice directors, and foodservice staff to implement credible halal programs while deepening trust and promoting transparency with students and families.  


Halal Education and Foodservice Training

One of the fundamental components of developing a third-party halal-certified foodservice program is ensuring that foodservice management and staff have the tools they need to succeed. This entails hands-on halal training and education on how to comply with halal guidelines in the specific facility or facilities that staff work in.

During our panel, Nadeem Zafar discussed how IFANCA has supported Chartwells in implementing a trusted halal meal program in higher education.

And YaQutullah emphasized that there are numerous educational resources that may be helpful for students, staff, and community members interested in learning more about what halal is and why it’s important.  


How to Bring About Change: Tips from Our Food Security Advocacy Panelists 

  1. Partner with Muslim Student Association (MSA) groups on campus who can help elevate your concerns. 
  2. Voice concerns to your teachers, faculty, and the administration by initiating a conversation with a teacher or staff member you trust.  
  3. Ensure that the decision-makers in your community are aware of the issue at hand—a lack of access to halal foodsand request a timeline for action. 
  4. Reach out to existing organizations who can help establish a halal program. 
  5. Utilize experts such as IFANCA to help guide these conversations and this process. 
  6. Be an advocate! Uplift the needs you are hearing and share resources and educational materials. 

As the food and health equity program coordinator at IFANCA, Amelia Keleher advocates for expanding access to halal options in schools, on college campuses, and through federal nutrition assistance programs. Based in Portland, ME, she is committed to cultivating sustainable and equitable food systems in her local community and beyond.