When choosing a college, students consider location, programs offered, size, cost, reputation… dining hall food? Even for those who require a special diet, dining hall food options are not usually at the top of the list. Shouldn’t all schools provide balanced meals all their students can eat, especially those schools which require you to purchase a meal plan if living on campus?

Today, more and more people have to or choose to adhere to strict diets. Whether it be from allergies, an autoimmune disease, animal welfare, or religion, the number of Americans who need to read food labels before consuming goods is steadily growing. According to the Top Trends in Prepared Foods in 2017 report, six percent of the United States population now identifies as vegan. A study published in May 2017 in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 3.6 percent of Americans have food allergies or intolerances.

In a study published in July 2017, Pew Research Center estimates that there are currently 3.45 million Muslims in the United States, who like some other communities, have certain dietary restrictions. The halal food market in America is an over 20 billion dollar industry. Surely college students can be included in those numbers. So, why would it be such a surprise that American colleges would offer halal food options?

In 1999, Omer Bin Abdullah’s son was a freshman living on campus at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, popularly known as Virginia Tech. His son complained to him about the lack of food options. He suggested his son take up the matter with the food director. Higher education is expensive enough, then add in the cost of books, housing, and meal plans…you definitely want to get the most bang for your buck. After all, it’s unfair to pay for what you know you cannot get full use of. So Abdullah’s son requested a refund of his meal plan money. Unfortunately, it was met with a rejection. The school said they could not do it and, furthermore, they argued that they’d had Muslim students for decades without this ever being an issue. “We helped our son draft a response. If the Muslims students in the past were unobservant or docile, that does not invalidate the necessity of serving halal foods to Muslims,” says Abdullah.

And guess what? After some back and forth and some research done by both sides on how to solve this problem, the school ended up creating a halal window in one of their dining halls with a dedicated new stove and cookware.

Today, Virginia Tech offers halal food options in multiple dining halls and even a campus food truck. It appears from their website that any food items made with fresh, unbreaded chicken breast or thigh meat are made using certified halal chicken and are noted as such on the ingredients/nutritional information.

Abdullah’s son was somewhat of a pioneer, at least at Virginia Tech. Why was he the first one to approach their administration regarding halal food? Instead of focusing on the “why not befores,” it seems more beneficial to focus on the “going forwards.” And that seems to be exactly what today’s young people are doing.

More and more colleges have Muslim Student Associations now, which is one really helpful way of getting the Muslim voice heard and recognized. While MSAs in North America were first formed in the 1960s, they didn’t start to take shape in the way we now recognize them, as groups of mostly American Muslims who organize prayers, lectures, discussions, and charitable and social events, and seek to unify Muslim students from different cultural backgrounds, until the 1990s. MSAs across America are doing great work in their communities, not just for Muslims but for everyone, which really creates a positive image and fosters an atmosphere where others may be more open to accommodating their needs.

It was a brave effort on Abdullah’s son’s part, being just one person bold enough to express halal food options as a need, not a want, especially in the face of the reaction he initially received from the school. Many people are not that bold; there is truth to the saying “safety in numbers.” So, when you have the support of a group of Muslims, such as an MSA, it does become easier to approach the situation of Muslim needs on campus.

And that’s what really helped get halal meals on the menu at Washington University in St. Louis. When Nadeem Siddiqui got there in 2008 as the resident district manager for Bon Appétit Management Company, Wash U’s dining services partner, he says they had a halal food program a few years back, but it wasn’t very successful and disappeared altogether. So, he started working with the students in the MSA to build a halal food program that would last. It took about a year for he and the students to build a solid program that would be sustainable and financially viable. “To maintain financial stability,” Siddiqui says, “you have to approach it in a way where halal is not just for Muslims, it’s for everybody.”

And that is what he and the students did. The MSA put together a strategic plan that explained, firstly, why halal? When asked that question, “Why?” there was not always a quick answer from the students. “If you can’t explain [why], your program’s not going to go anywhere,” says Siddiqui. If the answer is, “because I want it,” you likely won’t receive much support.

The next part of the students’ plan was ways that the university could support the “why.” They presented their well-thought out plan to the student union leadership and from there to the chancellor’s office and then to the dean of students. It really became a group effort. Of course the chef who would be running the halal food station had to be involved and educated on not only running a strictly halal food station, but also in sourcing the raw materials. The chef had to understand the logistics from purchasing to delivering the final product. “You can’t just grill a chicken breast and put it on a plate; it’s not going to sell. Nobody wants to eat that,” says Siddiqui. The food actually has to taste good! So, the chef is really instrumental in making those halal items desirable. There needs to be time spent building tasty recipes. Siddiqui believes that’s been achieved at Wash U. “There’s more students who eat [at the halal dining station] who are non-Muslims.”

With a strong plan, it became easier to say that the halal meal program would become a part of the university, “not just for one year or two years,” says Siddiqui, it would be “part of their DNA.”

The dedicated halal dining center at Wash U opened in 2010 and is currently still running successfully. And according to current Wash U junior Amal Haque, the university is opening a new dining hall on campus in the coming years, “and they intend to add another halal food station on campus in response to the Muslim students who asked for it.” In the meantime, you can visit the WUrld Fusion dining center in the evenings daily for delicious Chicken Vindaloo, Chicken Tikka Masala, or Peri Peri Chicken, among other menu items.

At Columbia University, students can elect to enroll in Columbia’s Halal Meal Plan. Those enrolled will receive a “halal” sticker to be placed on their student ID. Of course, students who don’t enroll in the program can still eat the halal food offered in the dining halls. According to Columbia Dining, “Only one percent of students on a meal plan self-identify that they adhere to a halal diet, but they are not required to register.”

Columbia Dining first started offering halal meals during Ramadan at the request of students over a decade ago. Halal meals were gradually incorporated into the menu until they became a daily offering. In fact, they recently began using halal bone-in chicken for all hot-food stations on their main line. Since Columbia purchases their halal bone-in chicken locally, it also supports their sustainable buying philosophy. While they do have a separate halal station that serves hot meals daily, “we try to mirror the daily offerings at both the halal and the main station, so that there isn’t a significant difference in what is being offered to students.”

Boston University Dining Services also sources all of their whole chickens, chicken breasts, and chicken thighs from local farms that are certified humane. That wasn’t always the case, of course. The evolution of the halal food offerings at Boston University is similar to that of Columbia: it started out simply and then grew as requests increased.

At Boston, as feedback for halal offerings increased, dining services began to source more halal products to include in the everyday menu. The current halal offerings are available at every dining room at every meal period.

Similarly, according to Stanford University’s website, “All of the chicken and beef, including the hamburger patties, served in the dining halls are certified halal.” This all harkens back to Siddiqui’s point that, “Halal is for everybody.”

One thing to keep in mind, however, is whether or not these dining facilities take care to ensure there is no cross contamination. All of the meat may be halal, but that doesn’t mean the final product will be halal. A grilled halal chicken breast smothered in wine sauce would certainly not be considered halal. So, don’t get too comfortable just because your school may only use halal meats. This is the benefit of having a dedicated kitchen space for halal items only.

At Wash U, Siddiqui emphasized the importance of a separate kitchen space and getting the one option to be as perfect as can be, meaning consistent and credible. He thinks schools should feel comfortable opening up those kitchens to patrons and the chef should be able to speak to them freely and openly and honestly about the process and everything that goes into preparing those halal meals. “Credibility is important,” emphasizes Siddiqui. “Without consistency and reliability, the program would never be what it needs to be.”

Siddiqui is currently the Executive Director for Faculty Student Association at Stony Brook University. He says the halal program there was set in motion almost 25 years ago by the Muslim chaplain, Sanaa Nadim. A full Halal NY station just opened on campus a year ago, and while Siddiqui says he helped and gave input on a thing or two, “The credit really goes to [Nadim]. She has been fighting for halal food for 24 years and this is her baby.” Siddiqui continues, “She has really brought us to the next level.”

For some, having a credible halal dedicated kitchen and utensils is more important than having multiple dining halls offering halal food. For others, being able to eat just about anything from the dining halls knowing all of the beef and chicken is certified halal is preferred. In either case, you won’t get what you want unless you ask for it. The number one way to effect change is to speak up. In any situation, you will not get what you want if nobody knows what that is. If you want halal food because you only follow a halal diet, you must make your university aware. You are likely not the only student on campus. Talk to your Muslim Student Association about approaching the administrators in charge. If you don’t have an MSA on campus, collaborate with other Muslims at the school. Even if you don’t know a single other Muslim student living on campus, it really never hurts to share your wants and needs with your university. Put together a solid plan of action and, if you’re a halal consumer, ask for it!

Alia Shalabi loves the color green, nachos, and watching way too much television. She lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her husband and three children.