USDA to accommodate religious diets
By Jazelle Hunt NNPA Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON, D.C. (NNPA) — As it stands, Muslim and Jewish families in need might have to choose between following their faith and adequately feeding their families. But thanks to an amendment tucked into the Agricultural Act of 2014, also known as the farm bill, the U.S. Department of Agriculture must begin providing halal and kosher food to community emergency food providers.
More than a dozen metro areas are home to large African American Muslim and/or Jewish populations, including Chicago, Detroit, New York City, Philadelphia, and Memphis. Incidentally, a few of these areas have high poverty rates, particularly among Blacks, between 2008 and 2012. For example, 26 percent of people in Memphis were living below the poverty line.
According to the Pew Center, about 15 percent of the nation’s population is considered food insecure. At the same time, enrollment in the food stamp program is three times as high as it was in 2000.
“In these tough economic times, food banks and pantries are playing a critical role in serving our most vulnerable communities by helping to ensure they have access to nutritious meals and food. However, many pantries face an uphill battle in trying to meet the needs of observant families be-cause they have difficulty identifying and obtaining kosher food,” said Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY.), a co-sponsor of this amendment to the farm bill. “Our amendment will make it easier for food banks to provide kosher and halal foods and, in turn, ensure no family has to choose between abiding by their religious beliefs or having enough food to eat.”
Originally, Rep. Crowley (in partnership with Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand) suggested the halal and kosher provisions in 2012 as a stand-alone bill, after the need became apparent in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. When it didn’t pass, he repackaged the idea as an amendment to the Farm Bill, which President Obama signed into law this past February.
The USDA already provides emergency food to state providers through the Emergency Food Assistance Program. These government supplies feed food banks; then, local pantries, shelters, soup kitchens, and other anti-hunger community organizations purchase items from the food banks at discounted and subsidized rates.
Crowley’s amendment requires the USDA to inventory and track items that are inherently kosher and halal, and ensure the provisions get to food banks where they are most needed. It also directs the Secretary of Agriculture to improve efforts to seek and purchase food from certified kosher and halal vendors, at the same price as non-kosher or halal products.
As Stephan Kline, associate vice president for Public Policy for the Jewish Federation of America explains, “If this works, what is likely to be the best benefit is a greater degree of meat and fish protein [pantry managers] would be able to access so clients can have more choices, and more variety in their diets.”
Choice is a key component at the Mitzvah Food Project, based in the Philadelphia metro area. The project is a network of five fully kosher pantries (including three with delivery service) that serves 2,600 families each year. Unlike many pantries, the Mitzvah Project allows clients to choose their groceries, instead of providing pre-packaged bundles.
When faced with the choice between adhering to religious dietary laws and feeding their families, many choose to contend with hunger, says Deirdre Mulligan, the program’s manager.
“For the people who are keeping to their religious practice, they will eat less to make sure they are being observant from what I’ve seen,” she says, sharing an example of a family who had requested kosher beef. “The mother from one of my families told me that’s the first time she had had beef in years. Kosher beef is more expensive than organic. She has a large family, she’s a stay-at-home mom, her husband doesn’t make a whole lot of money, and she has a special needs son who will need care for the rest of his life.”
The words “halal” and “kosher” refer to food that is in line with regulations laid out in the Holy Books. The regulations encompass both foods that are forbidden (as in pork for Muslims and shellfish for Jews), as well as the ways in which food is prepared (such as humane, ritualized slaughter). For those who follow the Quran’s and Torah’s teachings, eating against these guidelines is forbidden.
The need for emergency kosher and halal provisions comes out of many factors. For example, much of the food at standard food banks is unacceptable for a kosher or halal diet.
“I wish the bank was able to provide the kinds of products we can purchase…that meet our [religious] codes. But I guess because they are government affiliated [the food bank] can’t advertise the brands they use. We have no way of knowing what good brands they may have,” says Brenda Sharif, program manager for the Halal Food Pantry in Memphis. When it was founded two years ago, it was the first halal pantry in the metro area. Today, it serves 70 to 75 families per month.
Sharif also asserts that this is the only halal pantry formally affiliated with the local food bank. “Something has to be done, because there are halal pantries across the United States that are not affiliated with their local food banks that would benefit greatly from that, but can’t because they’re not sure of the food.”
Lack of mobility also hinders people from using food banks. Many in need are physically unable to get to pantries; for this reason, some specialized pantries have gone mobile.
The Madinah Food Pantry, which serves 10 counties in northeast Georgia (and border towns of South Carolina), is one such pantry. It’s the only one in the area catering to Muslim community needs, and it is totally mobile—each of the 400 to 500 families per year receive each customized groceries delivered to their doorstep.
“Most pantries are only open certain times and a lot of families we deal with have no transportation, some are elderly, or in poor health. We deal with a lot of low socio-economic status families living on one SSI check or child support, or people out of work who can’t afford the gas,” says Salimah Hunafa, the pantry’s director.
There’s also the lack of food security and access, which is magnified for those with dietary restrictions.
“Many of our seniors can’t get around to places, and so many places in our communities are food deserts. Knowing food is going to be delivered takes the anxiety off,” says Amy Krulik, executive director of the Jewish Relief Agency. This mobile food pantry delivers customized kosher groceries to 3,200 homes in the Philadelphia metro area each month. “Then there’s the whole issue of making sure the food meets dietary needs.”
Mulligan, at the Mitzvah Food Project, points out that cultural tastes matter almost as much as religious regulations. “Some of my families have cultural likes and dislikes. For example, we have a large Russian population that will not eat peanut butter, it’s like it’s not considered fitfor human consumption. Or, many Nigerian adults won’t eat popcorn, because it’s meant for kids.”
Since the farm bill was signed in February, no further updates on the USDA’s compliance with this amendment have been issued. Everyone featured expressed that the government has the capacity to handle this task (since their organizations manage to connect and negotiate with vendors)—though both Kline and Mulligan said that finding low-cost meat options and smoothing out logistics might complicate matters.
In the meantime, community service organizations will continue to network, haggle, and and do the work of providing appropriate food for those in need, regardless of diet.
“We have to be real. The general population of the United States is becoming more and more diverse,” Sharif said.”When people emigrate here they bring their culture. Food is a part of culture, and religion…often drives people’s lives. To make it challenging that some can’t eat healthily in the so-called land of plenty, is a travesty.”