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On-campus dining options frustrate OU students with specialized diets

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A salad bar at Cate Restaurants on Oct. 25. OU Housing and Food has limited options for special diets.

While OU boasts inclusive and accessible dining options, some students who practice halal, kosher, vegan and other special diets aren’t experiencing these claims.  

Meal plans are a required purchase for almost all first-year students at OU. For most students, there are plenty of options to make use of these plans, which begin at a starting price of $2,308 for a regular plan, but for students with special and religious diets, the options begin to dwindle. 

“Housing and Food has a lot of options for dining on campus but has very few restaurants that offer halal food,” said Muneeb Ata, biology and letters senior and outreach chair for the Muslim Student Association. “In fact, on campus I (eat) vegetarian because of the lack of halal meat.” 

A halal diet, according to the Islamic Council of Victoria, means eating foods that are considered “permissible” by the Quran, the Islamic holy text, although not all Muslims practice the same levels of observance. For meat to be considered halal, it must be slaughtered by a Muslim adult in a manner that reduces the suffering of the animal. 

A halal diet prohibits alcohol, pork, carnivorous animals, non-halal meat and animal byproducts, and any food contaminated by non-halal foods, according to the Islamic Council of Victoria. 

“There are more than 200 students in the (Muslim Student Association) and they do not all practice Halal. A very large group does practice halal, and many of those who do not practice Halal still would prefer it,” Ata said. 

OU food staff is given “regular training” about halal and vegan food preparation, a spokesperson for OU Food Services said in an email to The Daily. But Ata said this training doesn’t always have the intended impact. 

“Many student workers are not properly trained or educated about halal or kosher options. Depending on who is on shift, you acquire the food you need. That shouldn't be the case,” Ata said.  

Students who eat a vegan diet also have limited options on campus. Spanish and pre-med freshman Rowan Fread is a vegan student who has found some challenges with her meal plan on campus. 

Veganism prohibits all animal productions including meat, dairy, gelatin and eggs.

Fread said sometimes products are labeled as meatless, but it is unclear whether the product is completely free of animal byproducts such as butter or eggs. 

“It's easiest usually to eat at Couch Dining," Fread said. "But on some days they don't they have a vegan and vegetarian station."

Students who have a hard time finding options with their special diet may not know about the resources available to them, said the OU Food Services spokesperson. 

“Food Services has a dietitian and an ingredients specialist on staff for trainings and education. They are also available for anyone at OU to contact regarding special dietary needs,” the OU Food Services spokesperson said in the email. 

Additionally, Food Services does not cater to kosher students, the spokesperson said.

“Our on-campus restaurants do not offer kosher menu items. The rigorous standards for food to be kosher certified — operations would have to have completely separate cooking equipment, vessels, utensils and plates — are not able to be implemented in our restaurants,” the spokesperson said in the email. 

If a student provides “documentation” of their kosher diet, they aren’t required to purchase a freshman meal plan, said the spokesperson. 

The spokesperson did not give details on what type of documentation was needed, but said that in cases where no accommodation can be made for a student’s diet, Food Services would document the situation and not require the purchase of a meal plan.

The difficulty of observing kosher at OU is part of the overall difficulty of keeping kosher in Oklahoma in general, said Abby Jacobson, rabbi of Emanuel Synagogue in Oklahoma City.

“One of the features of being a Jewish Oklahoman is that we have to handle a lot of the kosher needs ourselves,” Jacobson said. 

Aside from not eating pork and shellfish, kosher students have to maintain kosher kitchens and mind what foods they mix in the same meal, Jacobson said. 

According to Healthline, Jews who keep kosher consider food to fall into three categories: meat, dairy and pareve, which is food that isn’t meat or dairy. Meat and dairy cannot be prepared or eaten together in the same meal. 

Only the forequarters of animals with split hooves, like cows and sheep, and domesticated fowl like turkeys and chicken, are considered kosher. The animals also must be soaked to remove all blood and then slaughtered by a shochet, which is a certified butcher that practices Jewish law, according to Healthline. 

“If we do choose to eat meat, we are not allowed to mix it with any dairy, so whether that's in the same food, like a cheeseburger, or whether that's in the same meal, like a hamburger and a milkshake,” Jacobson said. 

Judaic studies senior Graham Wall has kept a kosher diet throughout college, but knows Jewish students who reduced their observance of a kosher diet due to a lack of options, he said. 

“I know there were a couple of kids ... who had been more kosher in high school and in their towns growing up who just gave it up because it was easier,” Wall said. 

Without a kitchen his freshman year, Wall mostly ate vegan options on campus because kosher meat wasn’t available on a meal plan. Now as an upperclassman, he has more options in cooking his own meals, but the closest place to get kosher meat is in Oklahoma City. 

“So much of the college experience revolves around food, which people don't talk about,” Wall said. “You meet people in the caf and things like that, and it becomes an isolating experience ... it becomes a weird and other-izing thing.”

For halal diets, Ata said that halal meat isn’t difficult to find in Oklahoma, and that contacting halal vendors to bring in more options for Muslim students would be a key step in creating a more inclusive campus. 

“Food is a great way to make OU more inclusive because not only is it crucial to the students who have dietary restrictions, but it is also a vital part of every day,” Ata said. 

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