UCR Dining should better cater to halal dietary restrictions

The Barn (above) is one of two UCR-owned restaurants that offer halal options upon request; it will be closing for construction this academic year. Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER

UCR Dining has recently attempted to address the growing concerns of Muslim students about the campus’s limited sources for halal food. This issue was made worse when Chronic Tacos replaced Habaneros in the HUB over the summer, and in doing so removed what was a popular source of halal chicken for many members of the campus. The most notable step taken so far has been the renewal of a deal with Fresno-area farm Mary’s Chicken, which, according to David Henry, UCR’s executive director of Dining, Hospitality and Retail Services, will ensure halal chicken as the “only option” for UCR Dining’s vendors starting in January of next year, although third party vendors will still be able to use their own supply lines.

Although this agreement is a step in the right direction, it will be insufficient by itself unless other Dining policies are adjusted to assist in offering more convenient halal options. The campus’s third party vendors are not required to provide options for dietary restrictions such as halal or kosher, but are merely “strongly suggested” to, which obviously offers no guarantee to someone who is strict about their diet. Furthermore, there is nothing to stop restaurants from following the standard industry practice of reusing oil and fryers for cooking all their meat. This is done in the interest of saving money, but it carries the side effect of exposing halal meat to non-halal meat, particularly pork, which is not permissible in the halal diet, and defeats the purpose of offering the halal meat in the first place. Thus, the needs of Muslim students are largely left out of the equation when it comes to third party vendors.

For many students, especially commuters who may not have the time to go all the way to the residential dining halls (which offer halal meat) on a daily basis, the vendors in the HUB are their most convenient and perhaps only option for meals. So, if a student eating at the HUB wants to be sure that their meal conforms to halal restrictions, they are limited to La Fiamma, which only offers halal meat upon request. The Barn, tucked away behind the Humanities and Social Sciences building far from the center of campus, offers halal meat as well. But as with La Fiamma, one has to specifically request it, a process which is likely to delay your meal if the meat isn’t already out and ready for preparation. It doesn’t help that The Barn’s hours are relatively brief — it’s only open between 10:30 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, which leaves it unsuitable for breakfast, dinner or anything at all on weekends. Not to mention that, according to UCR Today, it will also close for construction at some point “this academic year” for about 18 months.

UCR, a campus which prides itself on its diversity and resources for food security, seems to have overlooked this problem and left the burden of dealing with it on the Muslim student population. Admittedly, there is only so much that UCR Dining can do with regard to its third party vendors, short of mandating that they model their wares and equipment around the needs of a smaller subset of the student population. A requirement like that could hypothetically drive away these third parties, and end up benefitting nobody. However, if a vendor is not willing to recognize that their consumer base here at UCR has a variety of religious, voluntary and nutritional dietary restrictions, or if they are not able to provide at least a few options that accommodate for said restrictions, then perhaps they are not an optimal choice of restaurant for the campus community. If that’s the case, then Dining would do well to look into alternative vendors, or take the resources allocated for bringing those vendors to campus and put them into providing another in-house option.

Still, UCR can be applauded for its existing efforts to ensure halal options for Muslim students. Halal certification raises the costs of meat — 2 percent for chicken, but about 8 percent for ground beef because of the mushroom blend used, which makes beef certification a more complex process. David Henry has speculated that the relatively small cost increase for halal chicken won’t affect meal prices. While this will certainly come as a relief for the ever-emaciated student wallet, Dining would be remiss to not at least consider options for halal beef for the sake of making sure that student needs are prioritized over money. If an affordable option presents itself, then that would be all the better.

Above all else, UCR must ensure that it is first considering the dietary needs of all students when it comes to choosing what vendors it brings to campus, and what options of its own that it provides. Much of the concern voiced by students centers around what is available at and near the HUB — as it should, given that the HUB remains a widely popular and convenient option for meals because of its position near the center of campus. The first few steps that Dining has taken to remediating the concerns of Muslim students are a good start. However, when replacing food options in the HUB, UCR should thoroughly account for students who follow restrictive diets, rather than take reactive measures after the damage is done.

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