For a host of reasons, pantry administrators say “securing halal food was our biggest challenge.” Many are trying nonetheless.
When it comes to serving the Muslim community, one of the difficulties food pantries face is sourcing halal meat.
Halal, a word meaning “permissible” in Arabic, requires animals to be slaughtered and processed in a certain way under supervision. Halal rules also prohibit certain foods, such as pork, ban the use of alcohol in cooking, and require all equipment to be properly cleaned to prevent cross contamination between halal and non-halal food.
Halal food can be hard to find and expensive to purchase, even in New York City where Muslims make up roughly 8% of the population. Several Muslim women who operate food pantries in the New York City region are stepping up to meet the need because they know how important it is to the Islamic community. In the Islamic religion, eating halal food is a requirement.
Quratulain Sherazi, the co-founder of Hope and Healing International in Bath Beach, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, cited many challenges to starting her organization, including getting funds, food, space and volunteers. But, she noted, “securing halal food was our biggest challenge.”
She has partnered with local halal food retailers to purchase halal food as an out-of-pocket expense. She has spread the message about her food pantry through word of mouth, social media announcements and contacting local mosques. “Unfortunately, we were unable to host an event for Ramadan,” Sherazi said, referring to the holy month when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk each day.
At the American Council of Minority Women in Coney Island, NY, Bazah Roohi, who has headed the nonprofit since 2009, serves low-income or undocumented Pakistani and Hispanic families with a weekly food pantry, as well as a door-to-door home delivery service.
Over the past 12 years, ACMW has received help from Islamic Relief USA in the form of 2,400 to 2,500 pounds of halal meat every year on Eid-ul-Adha, another Islamic holiday. Islamic Relief USA, a wide-ranging charitable relief organization serving Muslims around the world, also provides halal food boxes during the holy month of Ramadan. In addition, Roohi raises funds from the community to help Muslims in need get halal meat on religious holidays.
Another organization ready to serve the Muslim population is ICNA Relief, which operates a network of 47 food pantries across 24 states. ICNA Relief is a Muslim organization that seeks to serve anyone in need regardless of their race or religion. One of its goals is to foster partnerships with Islamic centers, faith-based organizations and government agencies. To that end, ICNA Relief is advocating with the USDA to have more halal and kosher options for food pantries on a national level.
Trust can be a factor when it comes to assuring Muslim communities that the meat they are receiving stands up to halal requirements.
At a food pantry bordering Queens, NY, supported by ICNA Relief, Shumaila Siddiqui-Noor said keeping the food pantry stocked with ethnically and culturally appropriate foods is a challenge. She wants to ensure that families receive items that they are likely to eat.
During Eid-ul-Adha, ICNA Relief provides services for qurbani/udhiya to the community. Qurbani or udhiya, which translates to “sacrifice,” is the tradition of sharing meat with your family and with the poor.
ICNA Relief has relationships with local farms that allow it to get the most competitive pricing for meat such as goats, cows and lamb. Once slaughtered, the meat is cut in hygienic conditions, packaged in ten-pound bags, frozen and delivered. This helps avoid cross contamination and allows for the slogan, Eat Halal, Eat Healthy, It’s Hygienic!. Meat is also sourced through in-kind donations and direct purchases at wholesale prices.
Atia Shehnaz, a PhD scholar of organic chemistry and President of Pak American Skilled Women Organization, has served Brooklyn-based Pakistani women for the past 12 years. Though mostly focused on advancing the skills of women in the workforce, PASWO has also been distributing food on a weekly basis during the pandemic. In addition to raising funds from community members, Shehnaz got two goats to give halal meat to the community for Eid-ul-Adha holiday.
Trust can be a factor when it comes to assuring Muslim communities that the meat they are receiving stands up to halal requirements. Council of Peoples Organization is the largest halal food pantry in Brooklyn, working with City Harvest, Food Bank for New York City, United Way and other organizations to serve 15,000 people every week. It sends food to mosques, churches, schools, pantries and via mobile pantry.
Asma Mehdi, Chief Operating Officer at COPO, noted, “I have a serious issue getting halal food from the government. We cannot accept non zabiha halal meat from donors.” Zabiha refers to the rules for slaughtering an animal to make it fit for halal consumption.
Food Bank for New York City understands this issue and is addressing it. Its Director of Community Kitchen and Pantry, Sultana Ocasio, approaches people with Muslim greetings when offering halal meat. She also meets with local Muslim religious leaders to get the word out about the halal meat that is available through the food bank, but acknowledges that a level of doubt still exists. “It takes time to develop trust,” she said in a blog post at the Food Bank for NYC. “It really takes time.”