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Not so kosher: Strict religious diets may present challenges for students

Olivia Braude, For The Miami Student

Despite more than 25 on-campus dining options at Miami University, keeping Kosher and Halal diets is a challenge for religious students.

The university's Demske Culinary Support Center puts a lot of research into understanding the diverse dietary needs of the student body, Beverly Rambo, a culinary specialist at Miami, said. Rambo works with students who have specific diets, including students who have religious dietary restrictions, such as those who eat Kosher and Halal foods.

The Kosher diet of the Jewish religion is based on commandments given in the Torah, the written and oral law central to Judaism. There are variations in the practice of keeping Kosher among different sects, Marcy Miller said. Miller is the executive director of Hillel, the premier Jewish organization on campus.

Miller said the three main laws pertaining to what is or is not Kosher have to deal with the meat, the poultry and the fish. The meat must come from animals with cloven hooves that chewed cud, the poultry must not prey on other animals and the fish must have fins and scales and cannot be scavengers.

In order to run a certified Kosher kitchen, a supervisor - a Mashgiach - must be present to ensure the establishment is maintaining the laws of Kashrut, or adhering to Jewish dietary law, Miller said.

"In order for something to be deemed Kosher, according to the laws of Kashrut, foods have to be supervised in the growing, preparation, slaughtering, the whole nine yards," Miller said.

Miami has no space designated as a Kosher kitchen, and therefore, Rambo said, the institution cannot technically prepare Kosher meals.

However, Miller said she thinks the university's Demske Culinary Support Center works hard to meet the needs of individual students.

"I have been very pleased that the staff in charge of that department have been as accommodating as they can be. They work with me, they work with the students, they really strive to do what they can within their own limits," Miller said.

One of these limits is the low number of Jewish students who keep Kosher on Miami's campus. Around 1,000 Jewish students attend Miami, Miller said, but only a small percentage of those students keep Kosher.

"If there were a lot of Jewish students who were coming to forefront and requesting Kosher food I have no doubt the university would address the issue more directly," Miller said.

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Rambo said her office does not get many requests for Kosher products but that they continue to make an effort to provide packaged Kosher foods at the markets. She points specifically to the chalkboard at Market Street at MacCraken where students can post their food requests and the manager will try to meet them.

"There's another outlet for them to go to," Rambo said.

A Kosher product has an insignia on it - a hechsher - that certifies the product meets Jewish dietary standards. This small symbol, often located on the bottom corner of packaged foods, is the only visible difference between Kosher and regular food, Miller said.

Besides buying foods for the markets, the university purchases special cooking utensils only used to prepare Kosher meals, Rambo said. They are also willing to set-up accommodations for washing to avoid cross-contamination.

Still, it remains difficult for traditional or observant Jewish students to keep Kosher and eat hot meals. Hillel offers a solution by providing a free hot Kosher dinner at Shabbat, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath and "day of rest." Shabbat services start at 6 p.m. and dinner is served at 7 p.m. on Fridays throughout the school year.

Miller said Hillel has a Kosher kitchen and is in the process of having it certified by the Ohio Department of Health. Certification will make it more feasible for Miami to use the kitchen to provide Kosher meals to its students.

"I think one of the key issues here is that the university and Hillel work together to provide for Kosher students," Miller said.

The Halal diet is easier to accommodate than the Kosher diet, Rambo said.

The Demske Culinary Support Center is able to purchase Halal meat and buy special cooking utensils used only to prepare Halal food, Rambo said.

Halal food is prepared according to Islamic law. Miami graduate student Hussein Abu Jeib said the name of God is said over the animal during slaughtering.

Some Islamic scholars say that if Halal meat is not available, it is alright to eat not Halal-sometimes called Haram-foods. Pork and all pork products are Haram. Fish is considered neither Halal nor Haram so, Abu Jeib said, most of his friends who eat Halal turn to Miami's seafood options.

"I eat the meat here and I know it's not Halal," Abu Jeib said, "I would like to have Halal instead."

In his first year at Miami, Abu Jeib said he asked about Halal options but was told the university did not have Halal meat. He did not press the issue further.

The lack of follow-through from students with special dietary needs is one of the challenges the Demske Culinary Support Center faces, Rambo said.

She said several students make arrangements with her but then decide they can handle the diet on their own with the options available in the dining halls.

This is the case for first year Rami Abu-Attiyeh, who found eating Halal at Miami was not difficult.

"I never usually run into issues with eating something Halal," Abu-Attiyeh said.

He still takes precautions and reads food labels carefully. Muslims, much like Jews, do not eat pork or pork products. Pork gelatin is a common ingredient in packaged foods and this further restricts Abu-Attiyeh's options.

Despite this, Abu Jeib said it is not too difficult to find a similar product that does not contain pork gelatin.

"If you are looking for cheese and you look on the label and it says 'pork gelatin,' you pu t it back but you can always find another cheese without it," he said.

The effort made by the university is evident, but Abu Jeib said if there were one place on campus that served Halal meat, the Muslim student community would be better accommodated.

"I'm pretty sure if there's the option for a Muslim student to eat Halal food they would choose that over what's offered," Abu Jeib said.

While Miami has made no mention of building a dining facility that serves Halal meat, Rambo stressed their desire to accommodate all students' diets on an individual level.

If students have special dietary needs, they should call the Demske Culinary Support Center to set up an appointment to meet with a culinary specialist-usually Rambo-and discuss their needs.

It is important for students to take the initiative, Rambo said, because the school does not have a large inventory of Kosher and Halal foods, but will purchase them for meal plan holders who need them.

"We really do take it on an individual basis," Rambo said.

The Demske Culinary Support Center encourages students to explain exactly what their needs are using specific brand names of foods and to provide the school with recipes they enjoy. Once this is sorted out, the Demske Culinary Support Center goes to a food purchaser to determine what products can be bought. They usually designate the dining hall closest to the student's residence hall to train the staff and prepare the student's meals at no extra charge.

"If you live on campus and have a meal plan it is our job to assist you," Rambo said.

The Demske Culinary Support Center has seen an increase in the number of requests for special diet foods and continues to try to meet the needs of all Miami students.

"People just have to be willing to work with us and understand that we can't do this overnight but we take this quite serious," Rambo said.