Muslim students helped UChicago Dining formulate halal food options
In response to increasing requests for foods that conform to Islamic laws, UChicago Dining has created permanent halal food stations to serve students throughout the academic year.
The Bartlett and Cathey Dining Commons both have halal stations, which are now open every day. The stations feature a wide variety of South Asian, Middle Eastern, North African, and even American foods. Muslim students took leading roles in helping UChicago Dining formulate the plan and select menu choices.
“We see dining as an important way to build community,” said Richard Mason, executive director of UChicago Dining. “We wanted to make it easy for Muslim students who observe the halal requirements to be able to eat with everyone else, sitting with their house tables and feeling part of the campus community.”
The University offers options for many students with dietary restrictions, including kosher, gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan diets.
Finding halal foods on campus used to be difficult for Saalika Mela, a fourth-year studying political science and comparative human development. But Mela served on an advisory board of Muslim students who worked with UChicago Dining and Undergraduate Student Housing to improve halal options. She said she is grateful for the efforts that UChicago students and administrators have made to help her feel welcome on campus.
“We have such an accepting community, and I think it helps us recruit Muslim students to our school,” Mela said.
Preparing halal food is not a steep challenge, Mason said, and the requirements allow for a diverse meal selection. Halal meats must be slaughtered in a way that minimizes the animal’s suffering, with an invocation to God by a trained Muslim. Halal foods also have no alcohol content, including pure or artificial vanilla extract, and no pork or by-products like gelatin and pepsin.
When Mela started college, halal food stations rotated through the dining halls on different days.
“The timing was hard to catch right because halal foods were only available at certain times, and I couldn’t keep track,” she said.
In their effort to expand halal offerings, Mela and her fellow students surveyed their peers to gauge demand, suggested recipes and dishes to the dining staff, and gave UChicago Dining feedback on how the staff was handling halal foods.
“The students have been amazing to work with,” Mason said. “They helped us solve every problem that they brought to us.”
Through that dialogue, the dining staff learned that the students wanted pizza, gyoza and spaghetti, in addition to traditional foods from the Middle East or South Asia. Mason drove some of his chefs up to the Rogers Park neighborhood on the North side to sample the halal pizzas on Devon Street and get their recipes.
By 2011, UChicago Dining’s halal stations had opened for weekday meals in the Bartlett and Cathey Dining Commons. The hours of operation expanded this fall and now include lunch and dinner during the weekends, except for Saturday nights, when all of the dining halls are closed.
Mason now finds himself answering questions from other universities about Muslim holidays, where to buy halal meats in bulk, and how to keep the serving and prep areas halal-friendly. Asma Ahad, a director at IFANCA, the Islamic organization that creates guidelines for halal kitchens, is not surprised.
“The demand for halal food is growing across the country, and one of the biggest drivers is activism on university campuses,” she said.