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Davis, California

Saturday, July 20, 2024

Campaign for connections


Muslim, Jewish students campaign for more halal, kosher food options on campus

Last week, Arielle Zoken felt a wave of joy wash over her at the sight of a leftover box of matzo on a counter of the dining commons. It was symbolic of Zoken’s efforts to introduce kosher food at the UC Davis DCs for Passover.

“The issue that we were having was that there was no kosher at all in the dining halls,” said Zoken, a second-year economics major. “Passover, even for the most reform, non-observant Jew, means something more than other holidays. A lot of reformed people who don’t keep kosher throughout the year will keep, to some level, kosher for Passover, like they won’t eat bread, pasta, things like that.”

As someone who is more observant, Zoken is very limited in what she can eat during the week of Passover. From pasta to legumes to corn, there’s practically nothing she can touch in the DCs except for fruit. Last year, when she was a freshman, her mother sent her two whole grocery bags of kosher food to sustain her for the week.

“Two of my roommates are not Jewish, and last year, I didn’t really see them for a whole week because I was cooped up in my dorm, eating my matzo and like fruit and meat that was in my mini fridge,” Zoken said. “That was embarrassing and also wasn’t fair because I had all these meals that I wasn’t using.”

Zoken and other Jewish students are not the only ones who face this problem. Muslim students on campus who follow a halal diet have also run into obstacles in terms of adhering to their faith when eating at the DCs.

“Halal usually refers to the meat […and] one of the most important things [is that] Muslims don’t eat pork, we don’t have alcohol, so if you were to, say, put alcohol in the [halal] chicken, that completely defeats the purpose — we can’t eat it anymore,” said Hasna El-Nounou, a second-year community and regional development major. “There were some people who were just really sad because the cookies were used with vanilla extract, and vanilla extract has alcohol in it. It was heartbreaking.”

Out of this problem arose an effort among these students to create a halal/kosher food campaign. El-Nounou, who is a board member for the Muslim Student Association, and a few other MSA members decided to recruit Zoken and her community for the campaign. Together, they have been coordinating meetings with the DC staff to implement more kosher and halal food options for students during religiously significant times of this school year.

“I went in with the mentality that like, ‘Okay, there’s probably a lot of halal food on campus, I know that the dining commons sometimes offers halal chicken,’” El-Nounou said. “[We went] in and kind of figured out ‘Can we increase the amount of food on campus?’ and ‘Ramadan is coming up, how can we increase [halal options]?’ Then as a board we also took note that there aren’t that many kosher options, there’s actually less kosher options.”

Halal can be found on campus in various places like at TexMex in the CoHo as well as various popular food trucks like Shah’s. But kosher options are few and far between on campus as well as in the community. In some cases, students have to make the extremely difficult decision to give up keeping kosher altogether just because of how challenging it is in Davis.

“I eventually had to give up being kosher full time,” said Sarah Goldberg, a second-year biochemistry and molecular biology double major, in an email interview. “I also tried to be vegetarian in the dining halls so that I could loosely adhere to the laws of kosher, however that didn’t work for me health-wise. Eventually, I just had to give up keeping kosher besides on Passover. There is little to no kosher food sold in Davis, and the meals that are sold are boxed/packaged items, no meat or dairy products really. Emotionally and mentally, it was really hard to have to give up my religion in order to survive and keep my physical health.”

Goldberg had grown up abiding to a certain set of laws her entire life, and to give up kosher in college was an overwhelming decision to make as a freshman. In order to keep kosher during Passover, she had to get her meals from a local rabbi and his family, but even this was a challenge.

“Basically, last Passover I almost fainted because I didn’t have easy enough access to Passover food and I wasn’t going to be able to go to the rabbi’s house to get food until six PM that evening,” Goldberg said. “So I had planned to just attempt to do a full day of classes and work on no food. Having access to food that you can eat seems like such a small thing, but it can make the [biggest] difference in a person’s daily life. Not having to go all the way to the rabbi’s house, far up Anderson Rd, to get my meals this year was such a blessing.”

This was the first part of the campaign that Zoken decided to tackle specifically with Goldberg in mind: Passover is too important for students not to have access to kosher food.

This year, Passover occurred between March 30 and April 7. After one external kosher kitchen fell through delivering meals for the week to the DCs, Zoken was overjoyed when she got the good news that a kitchen she recommended from Oakland would be providing kosher food for UC Davis students. With this method, students could swipe in or, if not a freshman, buy a meal plan for the week so they had access to kosher food.  

“I literally started crying when the texts started rolling in of like ‘I got my food’ and pictures of [students] with their food,” Zoken said. “I don’t think Dining Services realized how many people there were either, but there were options like shawarma, chicken, vegetables, pound cake, there was a really pretty flier that went up and I sent out and shared, and there was matzo. Jewish students, for the first time in awhile, started feeling like ‘hey we matter here.’”

One reason UC Davis might not have a kosher kitchen is because of the specific rules as to what is required to keep one. Zoken has also heard from a DC chef that there aren’t enough Jewish students at UC Davis to justify maintaining a kosher kitchen. This is the catch-22 of the situation, as Zoken pointed out there are not enough Jewish students at UC Davis largely because there is no kosher kitchen.

“I would like Davis to have plenty of different food options for all students’ dietary restrictions,” Goldberg said. “I think a kosher restaurant on campus would be an amazing thing to have as well as regular kosher meals provided for those with meal plans.”

According to Zoken, what this campaign meant was that students were not losing their money by not utilizing their swipes during this religious holiday. In the past, students who kept kosher would be losing out on those swipes and essentially wasting money, or were having to pay extra to get food plans at local synagogues, but an aspect of the campaign’s message is that students shouldn’t have to pay to keep their religion.

This also rings true for students who eat halal and observe the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which occurs from the middle of May to the middle of June this year. A component of Ramadan entails a fast from sunrise to sundown, which means no eating or drinking.

“Last year was difficult because the the early morning meal, which is at 5 a.m., the dining commons isn’t open, and I think the dining commons were actually closed when students could break their fast, so basically there was an entire month where none of the students could eat anything,” El-Nounou said. “So I went into the dining commons with everyone and I was like ‘listen, we can’t have that happen because they’re basically losing an entire month’s worth of swipes, and they don’t have food, they don’t have a kitchen to cook, they don’t have the dining commons, like, we have to figure that out.’”

Despite the change in DC hours to being open all day long this year, the weekends will still prove problematic because on Friday and Saturday evenings doors close at 7:30 p.m. or earlier, which is too early for students who are breaking their fast at roughly 8 p.m.

“I’m actually going to be meeting with [DC staff] tomorrow to discuss regulations, what we want to do for the month of Ramadan,” El-Nounou said. “Hopefully we can do something where students can have a take-out box and swipe it out, so that they can eat whenever they want, something along those lines. But to kind of work around that, maybe to offer more halal meat options around those times for students, during that month especially.”

El-Nounou also pointed out that it would be economically advantageous for UC Davis to adopt more halal options for its students because it will attract students who previously couldn’t eat there to finally do so.

“There’s a huge population of Muslim students on this campus, it’s absurd, like we can’t even tell you how many there are it’s such a big population, that’s why all the food trucks now, the majority of them are halal,” El-Nounou said. “They’re getting so much business because you actually make more money if you offer halal meat because people who don’t really eat halal don’t really care, people who eat halal obviously are going to care and it just doesn’t harm your business in any way.”

According to El-Nounou and Zoken, some people who eat halal will also eat kosher. Although the debate stands and this is not a universal decision by any means amongst people who eat halal, it illuminates the greater message of the campaign.

“Us having more kosher food on campus, hopefully in the long-run, some people who keep halal will eat the kosher food because it was killed by a God-fearing person — it all comes down to a connection, there is a solidarity there,” Zoken said. “I really hope that through this campaign, work can continue of us coming together rather than being further apart, because we live in a world right now that is so divisive.”

Ultimately, the halal/kosher food campaign is about increasing dietary options for students and bringing together people in a way that enables them to focus on their similarities rather than their differences.

“Nationally, people want to paint this big hatred that Jews and Muslims can have toward each other, but when it really comes down to it, there’s a lot of overlap there,” Zoken said. “You can have connections be achievable if you do more things like this and we can understand each other better.”



Written by: Marlys Jeane — features@theaggie.org


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