Halal Finds a Home at University of Chicago
An urban campus bristling with energy, the University of Chicago (UChicago) in Hyde Park is famous for its extraordinary number of Nobel Laureates. Its ivy-covered, gray stone, gothic buildings ornamented with gargoyles and grotesques also happen to be President Obama’s former place of work. Most recently, UChicago acquired another feather in its cap thanks to the unrelenting collaboration between its Muslim Students Association (MSA) and campus Dining Services.
A seed planted by the MSA in 2006, and consistently tended to and nurtured since then, has borne fruit. In 2011, the University inaugurated not one but two independent halal stations.
There are approximately 50-75 undergraduate students who self-identify as Muslims at UChicago. Staff, graduate students and hospital employees comprise a larger estimate.
It began with Dining Services working with the MSA to understand needs around Ramadan. “The students wanted dates, fruits, fruit juices and asked how we could provide them, so they could break their fast, since our dining halls would close by then,” says Mr. Richard Mason, Executive Director of UChicago Dining. “The students did a wonderful job educating us. They were telling us that some of the students will eat Kosher in the absence of halal, but we also learned that for well over 2/3rd of our Muslim students, that wasn’t acceptable. We have a pretty significant number of Muslim students on campus and we want them eating.”
“We asked where they liked to eat and they talked about going to Devon street. We asked about favorite foods and recipes,” says Mr. Mason. That’s how halal Gyro Pizza from Italian Express on Devon became the first halal option served by Dining Services, following Friday Jummah prayers.
In 2006, during Islamic Awareness Week, zabiha-halal night comprised a fuller menu. “We learned about vendors and how to prepare food for that evening. We saw that serving halal was comparatively easier than Kosher with respect to the physical separation and the role of the rabbi,” says Mr. Mason.
“In 2010, Zakia Ali, I and another student, Adil, decided to take the initiative to follow up with Dining Services and reinforce efforts. There was a burgeoning Muslim population on campus, and very little (being done) to cater to their needs. The MSA would receive recommendations and requests to improve halal dining, and considering the UChicago campus is not downtown but rather in Hyde Park, halal food is not too easily available,” says Ms. Saalika Mela, Outreach Coordinator UChicago MSA, Class of 2013. “Since the dining halls were meeting other minority needs (Kosher/Gluten-free/Vegan), we felt it was fair the Muslims also be catered to.”
Together, the three students conducted surveys on Muslim students’ satisfaction with dining hall food, their needs, what they would like to see more of, food contamination issues, and over the course of one year, they met with the Dining Committee frequently. The results included increased halal meals during the week, a pilot halal station by Spring 2011, and two permanent halal stations from Fall 2012.
Despite busy schedules, Ms. Ali, Ms. Mela and Mohamad Kodiaimati, a second year student majoring in Chemistry and Biochemistry, made halal a priority and did the groundwork necessary. They also took the time to iron out the challenges that invariably arise with new undertakings.
“In 2010-11, there were issues such as the halal food running out. We also had them provide us a schedule and information about the meat vendors to ensure we were getting actual halal meat,” says Ms. Ali.
To eliminate cross-contamination, the students wanted to make sure that separate surfaces and cookware were being used (for both halal and vegetarian). “Dining has been receptive to the problem, but its implementation has proven troublesome as it requires constant supervision of the staff,” says Ms. Ali. Some of the stations (i.e. breakfast omelets) use color coded pans to separate vegetarian items from meat and that was one possible solution.
“We also wanted healthy food options for Muslims, such that we could have grilled chicken and greens, and not always have to resort to fries or cheese pizza,” says Ms. Mela.
In conversations with campus dining, the students found that the best way to eliminate issues of cross contamination was to have a separate halal food station. The move has been well received by the entire student body.
“Each year, as we learned more, we added more meals that were halal. We were able to get better products from our vendors and provide more meals,” says Mr. Mason. “We outsource our food service to a food service management company and in this bid, we required that there be two halal stations in our two largest dining halls. It made a lot of sense to serve our students better by having a dedicated halal station.” For their part, the MSA continues to provide feedback to ensure that the meals served are reflective of what the Muslims on campus want.
“I wouldn’t see many of our Muslim students in our dining halls but with these programs, we do,” says Mr. Mason. Students who aren’t Muslim also see halal as a menu option. “If it is an entrée they enjoy, they’ll eat it as well. There are still others who see value in the way the meat is slaughtered and some of our students care about that,” says Mr. Mason.
If she could have just one improvement over the current situation, Ms. Mela would like a greater diversity of ‘Muslim cuisines’ “by which I mean more Arab dishes, and not as many Indian ones.” From the current menu, spaghetti with meat balls, chicken nuggets, orange chicken with rice and beef stir fry with broccoli are her favorites.
There are additional costs to halal foods but students who live in the residences are required to eat at the Dining Halls. “When colleagues from other campuses visit, they are curious about halal. They think it is as hard to do and as expensive to do as kosher. We have dedicated areas for halal but it easier to do than kosher and less expensive. You neither have to duplicate equipment nor have a person who has a role like the Rabbi,” says Mr. Mason. “Aramark works with the vendors and they feel the vendor supply has gotten better over the years. A lot of the universities are missing out on this.”
What was the single most important thing the MSA did to make their case? “They were helpful in having us understand what was possible,” comes Mr. Mason’s response.
Finally, was it crucial that UChicago is an urban campus? “It was convenient to have access to Devon street initially but once we discovered access to halal through the normal distribution channels, being in a metro or an urban campus wasn’t as important. The supply of halal foods is sufficient,” says Mr. Mason.
It’s a Two Way Street: “Dining was very receptive to our concerns and suggestions. All it took was initiative, data and follow through on our part to bring them up to speed with what needed to be done. We are working to constantly improve the situation and gather data.”
Understand the Process: The most important thing to do is understand the process and what it means to be a tuition paying student.
Patience: Exercise patience as the school is learning about our traditions and our needs.
Commitment: Had the MSA not had a person or group of people dedicated to working on halal dining to serve as a bridge between the Muslim population on campus and dining services, the entire initiative may have fallen apart. “We still regularly take surveys and provide dining with feedback. Currently, we have a menu that includes items like Gyros, South Asian dishes, Sloppy Joes, and more.”
As Dr. Naimath Khan, UChicago Class of 1997, puts it the MSA has made huge strides. “When I went to school, we’d settle for vegetarian options and if we wanted halal, it was our mother’s home cooked meals we depended on or area restaurants.” If each batch of students has a Zakia Ali or a Saalika Mela, halal on this campus, or any other, will hopefully be there to stay.
2007: Inclusion of a restaurant called “Saffron” in Dining Commons, which served halal South Asian food for all meals. This was not part of the three main dining halls.
2008-2009: The MSA & Dining Services engage in discussions resulting in South Asian cuisine with halal meat being served in one dining hall once or twice a week. Dining Services also provided a special taste-tester meal in which a variety of new foods were offered to the general Muslim student body to elicit feedback.
2009-2010: Students request that the cuisine be American halal. Burgers, chicken wings, and hot dogs from halal meat are served a few times a week.
2010-2011: All three dining halls serve halal food three times a week. Challenges arise but are collaboratively addressed.
2011-2012: There are full time halal stations in two of three major undergraduate dining halls.
About the Writer: Naazish YarKhan is Director, Content Strategy at IFANCA and contributing writer for numerous media internationally including NPR, Aramco World magazine, Huffington Post and Common Ground News Service.