For several years, some students at OU described finding food options on campus that accommodate their diets, such as kosher, halal or tree nut allergies, as “quite literally impossible,” which is a sentiment that has seen little change in recent years.
OU houses over 20 on-campus restaurants, ranging from chicken sandwiches at Chick-fil-A, burritos and bowls at Baja Fresh and barbecue-style hamburgers and hotdogs at the Sooner Smokehouse. Yet, students like Hannah Morris-Voth cannot utilize the majority of on-campus options due to her Kosher diet.
Kosher food is food that complies with Jewish dietary standards, according to Healthline. The laws include restrictions regarding preparation, processing and inspection of food. Kosher meat must be slaughtered by a shochet, or someone trained and certified to butcher animals according to Jewish law, and soaked to remove traces of blood before cooking.
OU Hillel estimates OU has 200-300 Jewish students out of its 28,052 students. In 2019, the Berman Jewish DataBank reported that Oklahoma had 4,425 Jewish residents, with Cleveland and Oklahoma Counties holding the largest Jewish population in Oklahoma with 2,300 individuals.
OU Housing and Food Services’ Director of Marketing and Communications Amy Buchanan wrote in an email that OU Food Services does not offer kosher menu items. She wrote that the “rigorous standards” for food to be kosher-certified are not implemented in on-campus restaurants.
Even OU’s Jewish cultural organization, Hillel, can’t always provide kosher options in its dining room. In a statement on OU Hillel’s websitethe Hillel wrote it cannot provide fully kosher options regularly due to limited access to kosher food items.
Due to the lack of kosher options at OU, English sophomore and on-campus resident Morris-Voth said, though fully kosher before attending OU, she had to sacrifice her kosher diet to a degree.
Morris-Voth said she can only eat prepackaged, kosher-certified food on campus. She’s unable to eat vegan options like fresh fruit served by OU dining halls as she might risk it not being inspected for insects or larvae before sale or consumption, according to kosher laws.
According to the OU Housing and Food website, all students living in OU’s residence halls, residential colleges and Headington Hall are required to purchase a meal plan. When asked if students who keep kosher are required to purchase a meal plan, Buchanan wrote if it is determined that no accommodation is available based on the student’s dietary needs, OU Food Services would document that, and the student would not be required to purchase a meal plan.
“Because each student’s dietary needs are unique, accommodations are made to fit the individual’s specific needs,” Buchanan wrote. “Accommodations could include OU Food Services purchasing products free of an ingredient that a student is allergic to or accommodating special nutritional requirements. There are few needs that cannot be accommodated. “
Before coming to OU, Morris-Voth said she emailed OU Food Services regarding kosher options. Morris-Voth was not provided alternative food options or a reduced meal plan after learning OU did not carry kosher menu items.
The regular meal plan rate at OU costs $ 2,466 a semester, or $ 5,532 a year. In addition to purchasing a full-priced meal plan, Morris-Voth spends about $ 400 a month for Kosher-certified food.
“I keep kosher because I believe that’s what God wants me to do,” Morris-Voth said. “I don’t keep fully kosher because of limitations, (and) because I do hate wasting money on the meal plan and not using it, I do use it in a very limited capacity. It’s just difficult, and it means that I can’t observe my religion in the way that I would like to. “
Like Jewish students seeking kosher options, Muslim students at OU struggle to find halal options on campus. The Islamic Council of Victoria defines halal food as food permitted under Islamic law. Halal food must be “processed, made, produced, manufactured and stored using utensils, equipment and machinery that have been cleansed according to Islamic law.” For example, Muslims cannot consume pork, alcohol or carnivorous animals.
In 2015, Adam Soltani, director of the Oklahoma Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, estimated that Oklahoma’s Muslim population was approximately 30,000.
OU offers halal food options at Athens Café, Sooner Smokehouse and the grill station at the residential colleges, Buchanan wrote. Vegan and vegetarian options also are available at both dining halls. Halal meat options are not available in restaurants in the Oklahoma Memorial Union.
Halal sandwich options are also provided by OU’s grab-and-go brand Cow on the Fly which can be found at Union Market, Acre Provisions, Xcetera, Crossroads, Flying Cow Café, The Hive, Amicus, The Bookmark and Café 201.
The lack of halal meat options available in the Oklahoma Memorial Union poses an inconvenience to commuters like Sarah Altamimi, the OU Shia Student Association president and a psychology junior.
Altamimi often settles for a tuna sandwich from the Union Market or finds halal food off campus. She said this might present issues for Muslim students who don’t have vehicles.
“There are international students who came from Arab countries (or) Middle Eastern countries and they can’t find access to halal meat on campus,” Altamimi said. “They basically have deprived themselves of eating meat, or they have to go out of the way to another place to get that source of halal meat.”
In response, Altamimi and former SSA president and OU graduate Zille Huma began conversations with OU Student Life and OU Food Services last semester to increase the availability of halal meat on campus.
Though these initiatives haven’t progressed, Altamimi said she plans to continue pushing for more halal options, as increasing the availability of halal food options should be a priority.
Difficulties finding on-campus food options to cater to dietary needs extended beyond religious obligations when biomedical engineering sophomore Katelyn Maier had to steer clear of the dessert section.
Maier’s nut allergy means risking a restricted throat and going into anaphylactic shock if exposed to nuts. The risk means Maier must avoid certain on-campus restaurants and menu items to prevent a potential allergic reaction and even death.
OU Food Services does not have any peanut-free dining areas, Buchanan wrote. However, they offer menu items that are free of peanuts and tree nuts. Buchanan wrote that when an individual self-identifies with an allergy, the dining staff follows all food allergy procedures for food preparation.
According to the OU Housing Food Services website, OU Food staff is trained to take “every precaution in preventing cross-contact among foods” by using separate serving utensils and equipment among various food items. There are still instances when cross-contact occurs, the website reads, so it is “ultimately the responsibility of the customer to judge whether to question ingredients or eat selected foods.”
An article from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York defines peanut and tree nut allergies as a “significant health concern,” affecting approximately 1.1 percent of the general population, or about 3 million Americans.
When Maier was deciding where to attend college, Maier met with an OU dietician who provided spreadsheets to Maier entailing which items would be served at the Couch Cafe and residential dining halls each day. The spreadsheet details each menu item and what ingredients they contain.
However, Maier still faces the risk of cross-contamination. Maier described an instance in which the Couch Cafeteria was serving pecan-crusted salmon next to a nut-free dish. Due to the risk of the tongs touching both items, Maier asked the employee serving the dishes if the tongs crossed food items. Maier said the employee had “absolutely no idea” and retrieved their manager to address Maier’s concerns.
“It was nice that they went and found somebody who knew it,” Maier said. “It was just upsetting that I had to go up the chain.”
Like Morris-Voth, Maier wasn’t offered an exemption from purchasing a meal plan despite Maier’s limited on-campus options.
For Maier, the risk of cross-contamination means life or death, a risk that lingers in the back of Maier’s mind.
“It’s terrifying. I mean, I don’t want to die, ”Maier said. “I really don’t want to die over something so stupid as someone accidentally cross-contaminating my food. … That just sucks. “
As on-campus students struggle to find food options that cater to their diets, Buchanan wrote that OU Food Services “continually evaluates food and service offerings for all guests, including those with specialty diet needs.” She wrote the department makes “every effort to accommodate all guests that visit any of our dining locations.”