At U of M, Muslim students struggle to stick to religious diet

Abdul's Afandy employee prepares an order.
An Abdul's Afandy employee prepares an order for a customer on Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014.
Bridget Bennett / MPR News

Omar Adam hesitates before ordering from a restaurant where French fries might swim in the same deep fryer as the pork dumplings do.

Amanda Hassan watches with a wary eye to see if the same utensil that sliced her cheese pizza also made its mark on a neighboring sausage one.

Muno Ali has squirmed in discomfort more than once before asking a sandwich shop employees to swap gloves in case they recently prepared a ham sub.

The three University of Minnesota students are Muslim, and like many others who share their religion, dietary restrictions mean taking extra precautions to make sure the food they consume aligns with their religious beliefs.

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While Muslim students have different ways of following the halal diet that dictates what foods they may eat to practice their religion, many say they're frustrated with a lack of halal eateries near campus. Being restricted by limited options at university dining and in nearby neighborhoods can make it difficult to socialize, some say, and doesn't reflect the University's diversity missions.

Ten years after its last attempt to expand kosher options for Jewish students, University Dining Services is examining whether to offer more kosher items and begin catering to students who follow a halal diet. The program is gauging interest and assessing the potential cost of adding more options, university spokesman Tim Busse said.

"It's something that's on their radar," he said.

For some Muslims, their religion dictates meats must be halal-certified, which means the animals are processed in a humane way. For example, the animals must be raised in the best possible conditions and not have witnessed another's slaughter. Some Muslim students also eat kosher foods that adhere to the dietary laws of Judaism, which like Islam, forbids pork.

Halal certification applies to both meat and animal byproducts like gelatin, and is not a government-regulated process.

Cleaning up
An Abdul's Afandy employee cleans Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014.
Bridget Bennett / MPR News

Within blocks of the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus, about half a dozen restaurants provide halal-certified food. Many students purchase their own from local grocers, co-ops or Restaurant Depot.

How strictly a person follows a halal diet varies from person to person, said Cawo Abdi, an assistant professor of sociology.

"There are some people who... might not see the fine print of everything they buy," she said. "And there are people for who it is an integral part of their being."

While some people exclusively eat halal, others -- like electrical engineering senior Ahmed Nusseibeh -- simply avoid pork and wine. Still, sometimes it's disturbing to learn after the fact that restaurants like Noodles & Company and Panda Express cook using wine, he said.

"It can be very distressing to suspect that the food you're eating is not meeting the requirements," Abdi said.

Sophomore Salahaldin Deban said because of how difficult it can be for Muslim students to confirm whether a food was prepared with or cross-contaminated by pork, certain foods are simply off-limits.

"The biggest thing I hear is people want hamburgers," he said. "But they have to settle for a veggie burger instead of a beef one."

Biju Meethaleveedu, owner of Malabari Kitchen in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, said many of his customers are Muslim students who seek halal eateries where they know the product is up to their standards.

"Nobody caters to that demographic," he said. "It's a neglected demographic."

The university does offer some retail, kosher-certified "grab and go" prepackaged meals, Busse said.

"The choice and number are there," he said, "but they're limited."

'You have no clue until someone tells you'

Abdul's Afandy owner Mohammad Abdul
Mohammad Abdul works on his computer in his restaurant, Abdul's Afandy, on Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014.
Bridget Bennett / MPR News

Limited dining options have often led Imane Daoud, a first-year neuroscience and psychology student, to stop ordering meat while on campus.

While it's a manageable problem, she said, the area's dearth of halal food can make it hard for Muslim students to stick to their religious practices.

"It causes a lot of people to have to kind of bend the rules and have to step out of it," she said, "because they can't get access and they don't have a lot of options."

Nusseibeh said because students typically must go to Mediterranean or Arabic restaurants to find halal food, Muslim students essentially order off the same menu wherever they go.

Adam, a first-year biology student, said he's comfortable eating at a range of restaurants because he trusts U.S. health codes function similarly to halal regulations.

But still, he said, when he eats out, questions linger: Is there wine in the sauce? Are there a deep fryers for pork and one for everything else?

"You have no clue until someone tells you," Deban said.

Hassan, a PSEO student from Blaine High School, said she nervously eats at Coffman Memorial Union -- where she suspects the same pizza cutter slices cheese and pork-sausage varieties.

"It would be nice if restaurants took more care and were more cautious," she said, "so students don't have to be so wary."

Calls for transparent, diverse dining

At Wally's Falafel in Dinkytown, one of the few campus-area eateries that serves halal meat, owner Wally Sakallah said doing does not cost him that much more.

He said children of early Somali immigrants to the Twin Cities have reached college age and attend the university. They are a growing portion of his clientele.

"Next year I'm sure I'm going to see more and more and more," Sakallah said. "There's going to be a lot of demand for halal food in the area from Somali students."

But Sakallah said he doesn't necessarily think that trend calls for more specialty halal restaurants. Instead, he said, existing restaurants should strive to offer one or two halal menu items.

Many Muslim students say that in addition to broadening halal options, they want restaurants to be more transparent about how their food is prepared. Listing ingredients on their menus or being cognizant of their preparation methods, they say, would help.

Discomfort associated with the uncertainty of university dining hall offerings is driving away Muslim students, Muno Ali said. She said more of them would opt to live in residence halls if they knew at least some halal meat would be provided.

"You can't be constantly thinking, 'Oh what am I eating?' every single day," she said.

Marwa Ali said the problematic lack of halal options both on and near campus goes beyond nutrition or religion.

"We come here to learn and meet new people and for the University experience," she said. "And not having food that's halal sets us back because it makes it hard to go out with people."

Abdi, the sociology professor, said she thinks it would be beneficial for the university to at least survey student interest in halal options.

"It's a difficult thing. Oftentimes the university, like just any other organization, is going to look at the bottom line," she said. "I think it's definitely important to accommodate the student population, which is diverse."

University Dining Services does field calls from students for more options, and is responding with its ongoing foray into campus interest for kosher and halal foods, Busse said. Within weeks, UDS will have collected hard figures and numbers and could have plans for a potential pilot program.

Busse said modifying kitchens and other facilities to properly separate and prepare kosher and halal ingredients remains the university's biggest barrier. He also cited past UDS experiences, such as a failed 2004 kosher meal plan trial that fizzled due to lack of demand.

"The food service industry is constantly evolving," he said. "This has been in discussion for the last decade or so."

Daoud doesn't see it as the university's job to cater to Muslim students. But she said it should consider the wide range of its students' dietary limitations.

"It feels kind of as if the university is ignoring this population of people... they're ignoring their needs while fulfilling other peoples' needs," she said. "It's basically saying your needs don't really matter."

Ayan Hassan, a first-year biochemistry student, said she struggles to reconcile the University's rhetoric of diversity with its lack of dining variety.

"If the university is a diverse place, it should have diverse food," Hassan said. "If you're advertising diversity, you should go all the way."

University guide on where to find halal foods