Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Julie Avis Rogers is in the process of meeting with Emerson’s food service provider about whether it can provide more kosher and halal options in the college’s dining facilities after receiving student complaints about the lack of choices.
Avis Rogers said the former director, Harrison Blum, found that about 9 percent of the 430 Emerson students he surveyed in 2017 identified as Jewish, and 1.2 percent identified as Muslim. Avis Rogers said student leaders from Emerson’s Hillel organization brought the lack of kosher food to her attention when she started working at the college in February 2019.
“I have heard of students who would like to keep kosher and are not able to—the need is there,” Avis Rogers said in an interview. “It’s so hard to hear, and it makes me realize that I have my work cut out for me in an important way.”
The college hired Bon Appétit Management Company to head its dining services beginning in fall 2018, following student complaints about the college’s previous provider, Sodexo. Bon Appétit offers kosher or halal options at other colleges such as Macalester College, Goucher College, and Washington University, according to specific college websites and the Bon Appétit website.
Resident District Manager for Bon Appétit Dawn Sajdyk said the college would need a new kitchen and mashgiach—a kosher establishment supervisor—to offer kosher food in the dining hall.
“Some larger universities in the area have [kosher kitchens], but we have one pretty small kitchen,” Sajdyk said. “We do offer some kosher-esque things and have worked with Hillel for Shabbat and high holidays all year. We do have halal chicken everyday on the grill, and all of our chicken breasts in dining hall are halal, so we do have that option.”
In a 2013 Beacon article, Director of Business Services Karen Dickinson said the Dining Center—which previously resided in the Little Building under Aramark’s services—did not include enough space to provide kosher options. Since then, the Dining Center relocated and increased in size from 8,800 to 18,800 square feet. The center could also expand into Whiskey Saigon, a 15,000-square-foot nightclub.
Kosher foods comply with Jewish dietary guidelines for food preparation and consumption, and halal foods comply with Muslim dietary guidelines, such as avoiding pork or alcohol.
“I’ve been hearing more specifically about the need for kosher options,” Avis Rogers said. “I think that if we’re going to do kosher, we should definitely make sure that we’re also providing halal options, but that’s not a conversation I’ve had with Muslim students.”
Hillel President Maya Simon does not keep kosher daily but said dining centers must prepare kosher food in a kosher-certified kitchen that eliminates cross-contamination, which Avis Rogers said can pose a challenge for small colleges such as Emerson.
“There are three basic rules of being kosher—no shellfish, no pork, and no milk and meat together,” Simon said in an interview. “Some people have two separate kitchens to prepare milk and dairy—that is very extreme—but others have separate pots and pans, and that is what we are looking for.”
Besides building a separate kosher kitchen, the college could take other steps to provide kosher and halal options, such as sourcing outside pre-packaged foods, Avis Rogers said.
Sajdyk said the college can adhere to students’ dietary needs by using outside vendors.
“For Passover, I have a few students who want to do kosher lunches and dinners, and we will bring in food from outside and have that food available for them,” Sajdyk said.
Simon said she doesn’t think the college should expect students to organize a demonstration or plan a campaign to ask for kosher options or halal options.
“We are all Emerson students, which means we are all involved in 40,000 other organizations—it’s a huge crusade to start,” Simon said. “I am the president and I do not have time to start a petition.”
Founder and co-president of the Muslim Student Association Maysoon Khan does not eat halal daily but said she often feels as if the school does not need to cater to her dietary needs since she is part of a minority community at the college.
“There are not many Muslim students, so I always thought I was one fish in a very big ocean,” Khan said. “What I want doesn’t really matter, that’s how I’ve always thought of it, so I operate as such for the most part.”
Khan said she was surprised that other colleges that use Bon Appétit offer kosher and halal options.
“They are our caterer, so that is something Emerson should definitely try to do,” Khan said. “Jewish students would be benefiting from it as well—and I think we have a large Jewish student population—so it is kind of surprising that we don’t cater to their ways of eating.”
President M. Lee Pelton said he thinks the college should offer options that cater to the needs of students who follow religious guidelines.
“I think we should,” Pelton said in an interview. “I mean, I hope that we would be able to do that, but [it] may be more complicated than I think it is.”
Kosher and halal meat is prepared in a specific way, from how the animal is slaughtered to how it is prepared for eating. However, the “humane” label on some foods in the Dining Center does not meet kosher or halal standards, Simon and Khan said.
Pia Bildirici, a freshman from Istanbul, Turkey who identifies as Jewish, said she knew it would be difficult to keep kosher at the college. She eats vegetarian in the Dining Center and often brings her own tuna fish to eat with her salads for protein.
Bildirici said the percentage of Jewish students should not dictate whether or not the college provides kosher options.
“Even if it was like 5 percent, people who are eating kosher pay the same amount that people who eat in the [Dining Center] pay, and we can’t eat all of the food,” Bildirici said.
Avis Rogers said providing kosher and halal options could bring more religious diversity to the college.
“I just keep thinking about how getting to that point is going to make Emerson such a better place,” Avis Rogers said. “There’s the phrase from Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come—and [if we] provide this food, we’re going to have students who are coming from a Muslim background [and] from a Jewish background.”