Equal-Service-for-Equal-Fees: Muslim Students Seek Halal Food Service on Campuses
Omer Abdul Ghaffar, Guest Writer
In 1999, some 127 years after its founding, Virginia Tech – formally the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University – was informed by a freshman that he deserved equal service for equal fees.
Being a freshman, at that time, meant he was obliged to live in their dormitory and eat at their dining rooms, but there were few foods that he could choose from. The first requests for halal meals and subsequent reminders were brushed aside without much ado. However, things began to change when the freshman’s parents also joined in with their reminders. The first response was that the student could easily survive on salads, pasta, and bread.
Upon receiving this response, the student raised the issue of equal service for equal fees: if he was expected to pay the same price for his meals, why couldn’t he get a diet that included meats? The question could snowball into a legal issue. The university administration admitted that in their 127 years they had graduated scores of Muslim students but none had ever made such a request related to dietary requirements.
Equal-service-for-equal-fees was a valid issue, and the administration assured the student there would be a halal window in one dining hall at least, the following semester. The parents and the student, however, had to help the school find a vendor who would meet the various halal rules and regulations. The wheels of change had been set in motion. Working with Al Safa Halal, the university installed a new section exclusively reserved for halal service. January 2000 saw its inauguration.
Ironically, prior to these series of events, VaTech had a thriving MSA that conducted regular Friday prayers on campus; there was even a mosque near the campus. Despite such activism, no one had sought the halal food facility.
Change did come to other campuses as well, even if it did arrive in bits and spurts. Schools, including Harvard University and Dartmouth College, began to offer halal foods year-round. The Dartmouth campaign gained momentum in 2001 and, in the shadows of 9/11, university authorities decided to accept the Muslims’ request as a means to promote cooperation and understanding. Nonetheless, in 2003, at another Virginia state school, the University of Mary, Washington, when a student raised the “Equal-service-for-equal-fees” argument, the school declined to accommodate the request stating that it was small and had to work within its foodservice contracts. This was despite the presence of a MSA chapter and several halal meat stores within an hour’s driving distance from the school.
In October 2004, Yale offered a Ramadan month halal food facility but it took more than signature campaigns. According to the “Yale Daily Life” (10/18/2004), “The MSA asked the administration for rebates, since students had to eat out each night, but the administration wanted to keep the dining options within the Yale meal plan.” The campaign had significant support from the Committee for Religious and Spiritual Life.
At New York University, while attempts to establish a halal food program date back to 1998, a well-planned and strategic approach was initiated anew in May 2003. In spring 2003, the pilot program had sold out halal meals within the first two days. In Fall 2004, the Muslim community secured their right to halal meals. Since the meat was purchased at such a good price, the meals included larger quantities of meat for the same price (double Halal burgers!). The supplier and food facility officials were very pleased with the response and with the quality of food.
In September 2006, Texas A&M became the first college in Texas to offer halal food on its campus, according to “The Battalion” (9/12/06). Nadeem Siddiqui, Executive Director for Dining Services, who had experience working with and implementing halal and Kosher food programs at Cornell University and Stanford University, helped start the program after students acquired administrative support and signatures on a petition. Siddiqui dismissed fears that the program could entail additional costs associated with providing halal meat and would only benefit Muslims on campus. These concerns, he told “The Battalion” were unwarranted, because the cost wasn’t much more, especially if the university aimed to have increased attendance at a particular dining hall.
In October 2006, during Ramadan, the MSA of Hofstra University secured a halal food facility at one dining hall. Even at this predominantly Jewish university, Muslim students had been cautious about eating French fries that were cooked in oil that had been used to prepare other meats, including pork.
The Muslim Students Association of the U.S. & Canada (MSA-National), which created a Muslims Accommodations Task Force, ran a successful campaign with Villanova University and turned lessons learned into a step-by-step manual that students can use as a guide to create halal kitchens on campus (http://www.msanational.org/files/matf/halalGUIDE.PDF). MSA-National also helps connect students to individuals who have done it on their own campuses.
The MSA Handbook is a resource that should be useful on any campus setting. However, vigilance will remain the price of freedom, and MSAs will need to closely monitor the progress of their halal projects to ensure growth. For instance, Stanford has provided halal foods since 1997 and students advertise the facility to the greater Stanford community, which helps broaden the customer base.
The MSA handbook rightly warns that it takes more than just winning the halal facility. Absence of student interest, especially when the university may offer a halal menu that lacks variety, appetizing food or both, can result in closure of the facility. Reviving it may become an uphill task. Educating Muslims on campus is not just about sharing awareness as to the availability of halal meat. Underlying all these endeavors is a commitment to obeying God’s will and spreading the understanding that, for Muslims, halal is the only way to go.
Since 1997, several Stanford dining halls carry a variety of halal meals. The dining halls proudly display signs advertising the availability of halal food. Dining hall staff also prepare carry-out meals for Muslim students during Ramadan.
The Stanford MSA realized that the mandatory meal plan did not serve Muslim student’s needs. In fact, many Muslim students asked for meal plan exemption on religious grounds. The MSA assessed the number of Muslim students that were not participating in or were not satisfied with prevailing meal options.
Research dining hall restrictions in advance and work to find vendors that meet the standards. Try not to overwhelm the staff with too many details in the first presentation.