Scarce dietary options on campus threaten students’ religious values

Munching on a plate of lettuce, first-year international student Muhammad Hassan Rao said he has been eating vegetables and peanut butter for the past few days, since Westminster doesn’t offer halal options for Muslim students. “I feel weak,” Rao said. Photo credit Hasib Hussainzada.

Munching on a plate of lettuce, first-year international student Muhammad Hassan Rao said he has been eating vegetables and peanut butter for the past few days, since Westminster doesn’t offer halal options for Muslim students. “I feel weak,” Rao said. Photo credit Hasib Hussainzada.

When most of the first-year students were busy socializing over lunch in the Shaw Student Center, one student, munching on a bowl of lettuce, pondered over what his next meal would be.

Muhammad Hassan Rao, a first-year student double majoring in computer science and finance, is an international student from Pakistan. Rao said coming to Westminster is his first time away from his family, and he already misses the food from home. A dedicated Muslim, Rao eats only halal meat, something he can’t find at Westminster.

The word “halal” means permissible in Arabic. In Islam, meat is considered halal when the animal’s throat is slit gently with a sharp blade, causing as little pain and suffering as possible. The person who slaughters the animal must say a prayer to Allah to bless the animal and give thanks for the food.

Rao said he thought Bon Appetit, Westminster College’s food provider, would already have halal options for Muslim students.

“There are people from different backgrounds and different religions, so [Bon Appetit] should have [halal] food on their menu,” said Rao, reminiscing about his breakfasts of halal beef and chicken back in Pakistan.

Although Westminster has Muslim students on campus, this is the first time an international student has asked for halal food, according to Sara Demko, Westminster’s assistant provost for international services.

Rao said he’s been eating vegetables from Shaw and peanut butter for the last few days.

As Westminster aims to gain a more diverse student body and faculty, it needs to consider things like having halal options on the food menu, said Abdulla Al-Ansari, a student from Qatar.

After Al-Ansari arrived at Westminster, he was placed in off-campus housing, so he ate halal by cooking his own meals.

Westminster College’s housing policy requires students to live on campus for the first two years and purchase a meal plan.

"We feel that it’s really important [for] new international students to have the opportunity to live on campus,” said Alison Vasquez, director of international student services and study abroad. “So the meal plan needs to be inclusive of students with all different dietary needs.”

It’s a new challenge for Bon Appetit, said Ryan Leonard, former catering director and the new general manager.

“It’s one thing if you are leaving Sandy [Utah] and you are coming to Westminster, but when you are coming from across the world to come to school here, we want to try to make it feel like home,” said Leonard, after he jotted down some of the recipes Rao’s mom makes back in Pakistan.

International students aren’t the only ones who face limited dietary options on campus that fail to meet their religious needs. Alex Bochner, a sophomore neuroscience major, is Jewish and eats only kosher foods.

The word “kosher” means clean or pure and refers to food that has been ritually prepared or blessed. In Judaism, kosher meat must be killed by a ritual slaughterer, and the death needs to happen almost instantaneously.

“Religion, ethics and all your values play a big role in what you eat,” Bochner said. “[Eating kosher food] is a big thing for me. I want to eat [kosher food] and practice my values and religion.”

The Office of Residence Life exempted Bochner from the meal plan requirement and he, like Al-Ansari, now prepares his own meals.

College food services needs to provide for students with specific dietary needs—for both health and religious reasons —said Leanna Kowallis, Westminster’s director of international recruitment.

Being a vegetarian has never been an option, a polite Rao said before he took the last bite of his plain breakfast of biscuit and potatoes.

“I feel weak,” Rao said as he touched his biceps, chuckling.