Dietary laws go to college
Penn State moving to comply with kosher and halal student requests
By Genevieve Marshall Of The Morning Call
February 9, 2008
Weisblatt has struggled to eat according to Jewish dietary laws since
moving to State College to attend Penn State University four years ago.
At home in Richboro, Bucks County, he had lot of options for buying kosher foods in nearby
”I eat dairy when I’m out but I keep kosher when I’m at home,” said
Weisblatt, a senior who was once the religious chairman of the Hillel
student group. ”I try to be as careful as I can.”
With 6,000 Jewish students at the University Park campus, he knew he
wasn’t alone, but wasn’t sure how to go about convincing administrators
to serve kosher foods.
Then he hit upon an idea. He would reach out to another group of
students who had the same difficulty finding food prepared according to
their religion’s dietary laws — Muslims.
”By working together, we could help two groups of students feel more a part of Penn State,” Weisblatt said.
Two weeks ago, Penn State began serving complete halal dinners for Muslim students in the Warnock Commons Dining Hall.
Halal literally means ”permissible” in Arabic. The meat is specially
butchered, and pork and alcohol-based ingredients are strictly haraam,
Every dish so far, from a burger and fries to chicken tandoori, has complied with Islamic dietary laws.
And while establishing a full kosher kitchen has proven unrealistic at
this point, Penn State will serve a kosher-prepared Passover buffet
over seven days in April. The university also began selling
pre-packaged kosher foods in a campus convenience store in the fall.
Penn State has seven dining rooms, five convenience stores, a
couple coffee ships and a few a la carte operations such as a food
court. Together, they serve more than 13,000 students.
The Muslim Students Association at Penn State estimates that there are
1,000 Muslim students on the University Park campus. Before January,
they had a two options — both Indian restaurants — for halal dining
in State College.
Muhammad Atiyat, a Muslim graduate student, was used to having halal food available in the dining hall at
as an undergraduate. Atiyat was on the board of the Muslim Students
Association two years ago when Weisblatt raised the issue of pursuing
halal and kosher dining at the same time.
”I live off campus, I’m married and I can cook halal at home,” Atiyat
said. ”But for students who live on campus, it’s a big deal. I wanted
them to have what I had for some of my time at Stony Brook.”
Weisblatt and Atiyat went to see Lisa Wandel, director of food
services, together and shared their ideas for a kosher and halal dining
hall similar to what other universities have created in the past decade.
One of their models was the Pavillion at Dartmouth University, where manager Robert Lester oversaw the opening of the
It was a first for the Ivy League, where most of the universities
already had kosher dining facilities, but none yet had halal dining
”We went from being at the back of the pack to the front,” Lester said.
It cost Dartmouth $250,000 to renovate an unused dining hall and outfit
several color-coded kitchens for kosher and halal service. Inside the
kitchen and storage areas, meat and dairy don’t touch. Pork and alcohol
are banned. Kosher and halal meats are separated. The color-coding
helped ensure foods and utensils wouldn’t intermingle.
But in the dining hall, everyone eats together. Disposable paper and
plastic products are used because keep dishes separate would be
impossible, he said.
Kosher, halal and other religion-based styles of dining such as
sakahara, a form of vegetarianism, are more difficult to offer at
colleges and universities where industry giants such as Sodexho have
contracts to run the school’s dining services.
”Being self-operated makes it easier to decide to do something and get it done,” Lester said. ”It’s one less step.”
Valley college or university offers halal dining. Most schools said
they don’t have enough Muslim students to warrant a full halal meal
— where more than 30 percent of students identify as Jewish — several
kosher dining options are available. The dining hall serves kosher
frozen meals at lunch with a dedicated microwave oven and disposable
plates and flatwear, and a hot dinner entree brought in for dinner.
There also Friday Shabbat dinners and Sunday bagel brunches from the
kosher kitchen at the Hillel House.
”We’re doing some renovations to our dining hall and grappling with
whether or not we need a full kosher kitchen,” said Karen Green, vice
president for student affairs and dean of students. ”We have to decide
if it’s going to be an option we think we could sustain. So far the
items we have been offering have met with great success.”
At Penn State, it eventually became apparent that having a full kosher
meal plan was beyond what the school could offer at the time. At least
two separate kitchens and sets of equipment are required for meat, and
for dairy and pareve food.
”It wasn’t going to work,” said Wandel. ”We didn’t have the space on campus — and we still don’t.”
”Halal dining seemed more doable for us,” Wandel said.
The same kitchen that prepared regular meals could be used for halal
meals, though the equipment must be washed three times before touching
the halal foods, she said.
Yet Wandel wondered if it was right to go through with full dining
plans for Muslim students when she could not do so for Jewish students.
But Weisblatt told her to do it anyway. ”Why not?” he reasoned.
Weisblatt’s goal was to bring kosher dining to campus before graduation
this spring. At the very least, he wanted to find kosher-for-Passover
foods for the one-week period each year when Jews abstain from most
grains in addition to pork, shellfish and other foods forbidden by the
Weisblatt was able to fulfill his goal, in part, by finding vendors to
stock one of Penn State’s convenience stores with kosher frozen meals,
dry goods and instant soups and pastas. This spring, he is organizing
the Passover buffet by bringing in caterers, temporary countertops and
Wandel said Weisblatt and Atiyat’s interest was crucial in making halal dining and the kosher food offerings a reality.
”They did the leg work,” Wandel said. ”They found the vendors, did
the research and made sure we were following the dietary laws.”
Curtis Weisner, assistant manager of Warnock Commons, is astonished at
how much he knows about Islamic dietary rules since he began serving
halal dinners two weeks ago. He can rattle off lists of unusual
ingredients that he checks all food products for that would make them
non-halal — things like L-cystine, found in many breads.
”Every morning we clean out our dishwasher before we run it three
times, [then we] run all the pots and pans through it three times,”
Weisner said. ”We have to make sure everything is sanitized, use
different utensils and be careful with the ingredients.”
Weisner hired several Muslim students to help prepare the halal meals and serve them with the help of full-time staff.
”They are more knowledgeable about halal and can serve as a guide to
our cooks,” Weisner said. ”We also wanted our students to know we had
Muslims involved in the process, overseeing everything that was done.”
On Jan. 28, the first official day of serving, more than 110 students
selected the halal meal. The food was so popular they ran out 10
minutes before dinner service was over.
Jaafar Al Aidaroos Bani Hashim, a Penn State freshman from the United
Arab Emirates, volunteered to work in the dining hall serving halal
food — even though he didn’t need a job.
”I did it to support the program,” Aidaroos said. ”I finally feel
like I’m counted in the population. Oh yeah, and the food is really