Halal chicken comes to UCO, offering another option

International students with dietary restrictions now have more than cheese pizza

Nathan Gomes

Contributing Writer

Halal food is prepared at a bakery in Dearhorn, Michigan. (ASSOCIATED PRESS/CARLOS OSORIO)

On the University of Central Oklahoma campus, a diverse range of food options are available, yet for many months, a significant gap in campus dietary options affected Muslim students who practice halal dietary restrictions. Relief arrived for these students just before Spring 2024 finals, with UCO and its food contractor, Chartwells, finding a supplier for halal chicken that can now be prepared on request. 

But for much of the school year, Muslim students, many of whom live on campus as international students and do not have drivers licenses, had limited options when eating at campus dining locations.

Saradokth Samea, an Iranian student who arrived at UCO for the Fall 2023 semester, said the lack of halal options affected her health. 

“When I raised this issue to UCOSA and ISC last semester, I didn’t see any action was taken,” Samea said. “I went on the kiosk and wrote that we need more halal food … they told me that way, I can address this issue more properly.”

“My biggest issue is that, even though I pay for the meal plan, I can’t eat anything. I got sick a lot, because I couldn’t get the nutrients my body needed. My available options were mostly pizzas,” she said. “I can’t eat that much on campus. I have to buy food from outside, which is expensive and I don’t have the option to cook in my dorm.”

What is halal?

Halal is an Arabic term used in the Muslim faith, meaning “lawful or permitted.” While it is commonly associated with Islamic dietary practices, halal also encompasses the humane treatment of animals during slaughter, which involves minimizing suffering and pronouncing God’s name as the animal is sacrificed. 

“It’s generally or at least initially referred to permissibility of slaughtered meat, the idea being that the Quran references that certain foods are permitted or not,” said Andrew Magnusson, an associate professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern history at UCO. “And so halal, in general, then refers to slaughtered meat that is permissible — generally, not pork.” 

Before slaughtering the animal, a verse from the Quran must be recited.

“So this is an invocation invoking the name of God, and that the animal has been slaughtered in a richly appropriate way,” Magnusson said. “So generally, this means that the throat was cut in what is supposed to be a quick and relatively painless manner, and all the blood drained out of it. So that’s a technical definition of halal. Of course, it more broadly refers to food that Muslims feel comfortable eating that’s permissible according to Islamic law.” 

In December 2023, The Vista met with two key figures overseeing dining services at UCO. Todd Nixon, senior dining services director, and Kyle Claiborne, residential dining director, also work for Chartwells Higher Ed, UCO’s food contract partner. Chartwells Higher Ed is a prominent food contracting company serving approximately 300 campuses nationwide. 

“There are vegan and vegetarian options,” Nixon said. “We don’t know when a Muslim student is going to come in to eat a whole chicken produced on the menu that day. In 1890, we could move some of the chicken breast, and hamburger patty into offerings there, but students would have to let us know if they prefer halal.”

When asked if there had been any feedback from Muslim students seeking halal food options during his tenure at UCO, Nixon said there were few requests.

“In my tenure working here, we never had a Muslim student ask for Halal offerings until recently. I think even in the past at UCO, there was a much larger international student population,” Nixon said. “At one time, there were Muslims from Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, and we had a large Iranian and Iraqi population. We still never had anyone ask.”

According to Nixon, a system called Chatback is in place to address students’ dietary needs. This system includes a phone number for students to request accommodations, particularly those who are lactose intolerant, gluten-free, or have specific religious dietary requirements. Chatback is also accessible through kiosks located at the entrances of Ayers Kitchen, the Nigh University Center food court, and 1890 Metropolitan Café.

Nixon said that he is interested in working directly with students regarding halal food.

“I would like to meet with the Muslim Student Association and work with them on this issue,” Nixon said.

UCO students of the Muslim faith

Sammer Ahmad, head of the Pakistani Student Association, has studied for more than five years at UCO. Ahmad said no student of the Muslim faith nor any member of the PSA has expressed this concern to him.

“I had a few students talk about it, but not as a concern. For a school campus, I don’t think a lot of campuses in the USA have halal food available. I just don’t know if they do,” Ahmad said. “But there have been a few students, and we as a group have also talked about it and what to do if we need to eat and what are the places that we can go to.”

Ahmad said he did bring the issue to the University of Central Oklahoma Student Association (UCOSA).

“I have talked with the UCOSA President about this issue at the beginning of this semester, and along with that issue, that we don’t have any space where we can perform our prayers,” he said.

Saif Ahmed said he lives on campus and struggled with eating on campus. 

“I’m aware that halal food is not available on campus, which is a struggle,” Ahmed said. “As a student under 21, I’m required to live on campus, where purchasing a meal plan is mandatory. This situation becomes particularly difficult given the high cost of the meal plan, especially when I’m unable to consume halal food.”

Ahmed said he emailed UCO Housing and DIning, but did not receive a response. However, he said he believes UCO can correct the problem. 

“Expanding the variety of food options to include halal selections would greatly enhance the dining experience,” Ahmed said. “A possible solution could be introducing a food truck that serves halal dishes that comes a few times a week.”

The University of Oklahoma has a policy allowing students to use their meal plans at affiliated food trucks on campus.

Abu Omar, a chain of Middle Eastern food trucks serving halal options, parks a truck at 900 S. Broadway. 

According to Saif Ahmad, UCO’s housing and dining services could consider partnering with a food truck food truck to campus in his mentioned statement , potentially on Tuesdays and Thursdays during lunchtime. This would enable students with meal plans to use their flex dollars or meal trade-offs, depending on the management’s approach. 

Izzi Barry served as the 2023-24 UCOSA Chair of Congress. She said UCOSA has had discussions on the issue of halal options. 

“Let’s say two or three times, OK? Let’s go with that,” Barry said. “So, a little bit about that. So the way that UCOSA works, we have committees. So I actually assign student concerns to different committees. So, our campus development committee, they have reached out to housing and dining — the head of that, which is Scott Monetti. He’s really wonderful to work with, always happy to take feedback, loves helping students. He’s a great dude. He’s always really happy to help students and get feedback.”

“We had a town hall, and I brought that to his attention, and he immediately wrote it down,” she said. “I know, it’s something that they’re looking into changing and figuring out, at least we’ve also been told, that labeling might not always be the best for whether or not things are halal. So, he’s navigating trying to do that.”

Barry also believes that there is a solution. 

“Yes, I do think that that is absolutely something that the university should prioritize,” she said. “I think keeping in mind, again, we do have such a big international student community and making sure that those people feel loved and supported [is important]. And like this, I cannot imagine what it would be like being in a completely different country … and adding on to that not having options for food.”

Ahsan Abir Sakif, president of the Bangladeshi Student Association and a UCOSA senator,  said that if there is no halal food on campus, the university should make the meal optional specifically for Muslim students who live in the dorms, and he also mentioned it  to Vice President Christopher Lynch, in one of the meeting that he had in the  previous semester and 

Lynch told that he will take action on this issue. 

The Vista reached out to Vice President Lynch of Enrollment and Student Success by email requesting an interview and on Feb. 15, he said to talk to Vice President Kevin Freeman, who overseas the division of finance and operations and he told the Vista. The Vista emailed Freeman and received no comment on this issue. 

Fluctuating population

Charlie Bunn, director for UCO Chi Alpha, works frequently with the university’s international students. He said dietary religious practices such as kosher and halal are major considerations for universities serving international student populations, but other factors can come into play when universities and their food vendors prepare for the coming semester of dining. The I-20 — the document issued by a U.S. government-approved educational institution certifying that an international student has been admitted to the university and has the financial resources to stay in the U.S. — is often used to determine logistical needs like food. Those numbers can fluctuate, as they have at post-pandemic UCO. 

“I guarantee you, even though a huge number of Indian students showed up this last semester, there were a lot of students that were issued I-20s from India, from Nepal, from Africa, from Pakistan as well, that did not show up,” Bunn said. “They had to delay because of visa issues, monetary and economic issues, travel issues, but they did not start school. So again, that’s a moving target.”

According to Broncho Analytics, the number of UCO international students fluctuated as a result of COVID-19. In Spring 2020, 711 international students were enrolled, but that number fell to 491 in Spring 2021. Those numbers now exceed pre-COVID levels, with 798 international students enrolled at UCO in Spring 2024. 

Supply and demand can be impacted by those numbers. Jared Scism, director of the Centre for Global Competency and Global Learning at the UCO International House, said he meets with students weekly and hears concerns over halal food. He said the International House used to feature a store that included halal items, but customer numbers fell over time.

“Students asked me about it all the time,” Scism said. “And I usually give this advice. I would love to see them have halal food on campus. But really, you know, I’m a big proponent of like, if you want to see change happen, you’ve got to be the change you want to see, right? And you’ve got to be active about it. And so you can’t expect something to always happen. So you’ve got to be proactive about it.”

But the Islamic practice of da’wah offers an explanation for why there were not more requests. In Arabic, da’wah means “making an invitation,” and for most practicing Muslims, this means to provide answers to questions, but not to force their beliefs or customs on others. 

“That is the reason why the Muslim Student Association has not addressed this issue before with UCOSA or the UCO housing and dining,” said Waleed Manaf, a pre-dental graduating senior and the da’wah chair of UCO’s Muslim Student Association. 

“If this issue had been brought to us, we would have tried to do something about it,” Manaf said. “No student has ever addressed this issue to us ever regarding not having halal food on campus. We would definitely be willing to work with anybody who is wanting to help bring halal food on campus, because we do realize that there are many Muslim students on campus, especially international students who live in dorms and do not have much variety to eat from.”

Halal and the law

Veronica Laizure, deputy director and legal counsel for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Oklahoma, said public universities have a special responsibility to accommodate students who observe kosher and halal food restrictions. 

“Any public university that receives federal funds has to accommodate student religious practices, to the extent that it does not present an undue burden on the institution, right? However, there’s not a whole lot of legal guidance on specifically what that means,” Laizure said. “Typically, courts have found that as long as a food option is available that meets the religious requirements of the person asking for the accommodation, then their duty has been met; they are considered to be in compliance with the law.”

But Laizure said that results can vary when it comes to accommodation. 

“If a student is seeking accommodations and the literal only thing that they can eat is cheese pizza, and all of the other students are given like this wide, wide variety of other foods,” Laizure said, “then yes, we would look at that as the school is not really meeting the standard of providing the proper accommodation for the students religious requirements.”

The executive director of CAIR Oklahoma, Adam Soltani, said the legal argument is important, but so are moral and ethical concerns. 

“But I always say put the legal stuff to the side, and think about what message are you sending to a Muslim student, just like what message would you be sending to a Jewish student or any other student, even a Hindu student who follows a strict vegetarian diet,” Soltani said. “You know, we talk about equality, but the term that we should be using more often than not is equity, right? Equality means that everyone has the same opportunity. So you can say, well, there’s equality in food choice, because everyone had food options, but equity would mean that the food options are, you know, the same for everyone. 

“So, that would be pepperoni pizza that’s halal,” he said. 

Count your chickens

UCO Director of Housing and Dining Scott Monetti said part of his job is to read everything students report through the Chatback kiosks. 

“I read every single comment, and there’s something like 500 different comments and they’re sometimes not pleasant to read, because the students are pretty pointed in their opinions,” Monetti said. “But I read every single one and we do what we can.”

Monetti said that while he can make quick changes with some housing requests, enacting changes on menu items requires more steps when working with an outside vendor.

“Because Chartwells runs as a separate business, when they get feedback, what they do with the feedback is largely up to them,” Monetti said. “That’s not to say that I don’t have an opinion, because I do, but it’s a constant conversation … about what they’re going to provide. So, the feedback that they may have gotten in their survey, whether or not they implement that, there could be just a lot of reasons why they might or might not implement a student’s suggestions.”

Chartwells negotiates large contracts with food suppliers, and Monetti said that supply chains can be complicated by contractual obligations to buy specific items from specific suppliers, complicating requests for smaller volume items like, for instance, halal chicken.

“Chartwells gets great prices on those things, because they’re so big, but it also limits them to who they can work with and what they can source,” he said.

Monetti also discussed the possibility of bringing halal food trucks to campus, and while he said that such arrangements might be possible, there are unseen challenges with food trucks. 

“Food trucks are problematic, because of all the requirements that we have to ensure student safety,” he said. “Food trucks have to be insured for a lot of money, just in case they served food to students that made them sick or whatever, they have to be insured for that. We want to drive students to eat at Ayers Kitchen, because we feel like that’s the best place for them to get a healthy meal.”

However, Monetti said that food trucks were something to be discussed.

“I think it’s worth considering putting food trucks in the mix, where we can do that for a meal trade,” he said.

Whether or not a halal food truck makes it to campus, halal chicken arrived sooner. On April 29, five days after The Vista’s interview with Monetti, this reporter received an email from Saradokht Samea. It was a forwarded message from Monetti. 

“Hi Saradokht!” Monetti wrote. “I spoke to Kyle [Claiborne, residential dining director] and he let me know that one of his suppliers finally came through with some Hilal [sic] chickens!”

On May 1, The Vista followed up on the progress toward bringing halal food to UCO. Monetti responded within 10 minutes. It was true: halal chickens were coming to campus.

“I do have a bit of good news for you,” Monetti wrote. “Chartwells received an order of chicken breasts that they can now cook upon request. Students can use the text-to-chat number to give them time to prepare it before they arrive.”

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