All incoming freshmen are required to choose between one of three dining plans that Penn offers — even if their dietary requirements make it inconvenient. For Muslim students, the inability to opt-out of the meal plan means they can only visit one dining hall on campus for meals. This situation is made even more complicated by the fact that several students have noticed lapses in the dining hall's adherence to the rules of halal.
Nearly two years ago, Kings Court English House became the first — and remains the only — dining hall on campus to serve halal food.
In order for food to be halal, there are several rules it must follow. For example, animals must be slaughtered in a specific way, and certain foods like alcohol are completely prohibited.
Many students are unsatisfied with the available options for students who need halal food. College freshman Jude Dartey is a new student representative for the Undergraduate Assembly and ran on the platform of expanding access to halal food to students on campus.
“Especially if you’re a Muslim student and you’re paying, let’s say, the full money, the full price for dining you should be guaranteed a place to eat ... seven days out of the week,” Dartey said.
Now, he is working on making sure Kings Court English House, which is only open on weekdays, can provide halal meals to students on weekends too.
Penn Business Services spokesperson Barbara Lea-Kruger said there are currently no concrete plans to expand past weekday operations.
Another pressing issue that Muslim students have cited is that there have been several lapses in the adherence to the rules and accessibility of halal food.
On Nov. 8, two incidents were reported to Bon Appetit's registered nutritionist by five freshman students, including College freshman Bhaktiar Choudhury and Wharton freshman Asfandyar Cheema. One detailed an occasion where there was no available halal food at Kings Court English House, and another described an incident in which cooking wine, which is not permissible under the rules of halal, was used in the cooking of the chicken labeled as halal.
Bon Appetit Resident District Manager Stephen Scardina said Penn Business Services conducted an investigation upon receiving these two reports and added that both of these incidents have been addressed.
“It wasn’t wine as one would buy in a state store, but it was a cooking wine," Scardina said of the second incident, "but still we removed all of that from our operation, and we rewrote any of the recipes that would call for that type of product so that it would never happen again.”
Wharton freshman Shehryar Khursheed said he had heard of at least two additional instances in which alcohol was used in food preparation and two in which meals with pork were mistakenly labeled as halal.
Scardina said the Kings Court English House dining staff undergoes a training in halal food preparation practices arranged by the Muslim Student Association every semester. He also said that Bon Appetit's campus executive chef, Christopher Smith, performs check-ups to make sure the kitchen practices are up to the proper standards three to four times every week.
College and Wharton junior Zuhaib Badami, the president of MSA, said the reported incidents were not “especially terrible” and are understandable given that Kings Court English House's halal options are part of a growing process.
Khursheed also said that in comparison to Kings Court English House, both Falk Dining Hall, which provides kosher food, and Hill Dining Hall, which offers vegan options, take greater precaution to adhere to the dietary restrictions of students.
“The halal chicken dishes are put next to the not-halal meat dishes which is, that’s basically not how you do things like if you’re saying a dining hall is halal then you have to realize that every single thing in that dining hall has to be halal," Cheema said.
Khursheed has contacted the Provost Office and the Dining Advisory Board in an effort to have halal food trucks be covered under dining dollars so that Muslim students could choose from better halal options than they would in campus dining halls. By doing so, Khursheed said more upperclassmen would be willing to participate in the dining plans.
“If it continues, then the very fact that Penn Business Services and Penn requiring us Muslims to be on the dining plan when dining doesn’t fully cooperate with our beliefs is kind of counterintuitive and just fosters tension between us and Penn administration.”
So far, he says his plan has received “huge backlash” from administrators. Director of Business Services and Hospitality Services Pamela Lampitt wrote in an email to Khursheed that for now, Penn is trying to focus solely on improving current dining facilities on campus, rather than expanding efforts to outside vendors.
“At the end of the day, non-Muslim people can also eat halal. So I don’t think just looking at it from the perspective of how many students is this going to benefit should be the way we should approach this problem,” Dartey said.
“We should approach it as, in my perspective, if one person is affected by this, then the whole Penn community is affected by this," he said.
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