By Andrea Pineda-Salgado

Epicenter-NYC is continuing to look at how food insecurity, exacerbated by the pandemic, has affected New Yorkers. While many have turned to food pantries for help, the pantries are struggling to keep up with demand, causing them to turn people away or significantly decrease the amount of food given. For those with dietary restrictions, it can be doubly challenging.

In New York City, people who follow a halal diet have been struggling to find food they can eat at pantries. The few pantries that do supply halal food are not receiving enough support to continue operating as they used to. 

Halal, which means “permissible” in Arabic, is used to describe food that adheres to Islamic dietary laws.  Food must be free of alcohol, pork and pork by-products, and meat must be slaughtered and processed in accordance with those requirements. 

Muslim families line up at ICNA Relief’s food pantry in Jamaica, Queens. Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado / Epicenter NYC

‘Muslim and halal observant families walk away with less food.’

Muslims and others who are halal-observant often can’t find halal food at all at food emergency service programs.

According to a study by the Arab-American Family Support Center (AAFSCNY), only 38% of food pantries out of 75 across the city supplied halal food. 

Maia Dillane, a researcher at AAFSCNY who helped publish the study, recalls a moment during a Thanksgiving distribution event.

“When food pantries lack the offerings that meet these dietary and cultural needs, Muslim and halal-observant families walk away with less food,” she says. “Our report tells the story where at a Thanksgiving event, halal turkeys were not made available. Families walked away without protein at this event. The purpose of food pantries [is to serve the food insecure] and we have a critical gap when these offerings are not accessible.”

Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) Relief is a nonprofit organization running six strictly Halal food pantries across NYC. Shumaila Siddiqui-Noor is the admin outreach coordinator for ICNA Relief and says the lack of halal food accessibility is nothing new.

“Halal food has always been hard to find and expensive to purchase. It’s always been a challenge because it is not inclusive and often not offered in food banks unless there is some special campaign,” she says. “Halal food is also not readily available in big brands like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. Some stores, like Costco, will have a very small section of halal food, but it’s often not consistent and runs out fast.”

On this particular day, ICNA Relief was not able to give halal meat. Instead community members received chickpeas. Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado / Epicenter NYC

Like everything else, this issue was exacerbated by the pandemic. Siddiqui-Noor says the food pantries noticed an increase in people, and in turn, the number of people seeking halal food also increased. It was manageable during the height of the pandemic due to extra funds given to pantries via donations or by the city, but not anymore.

Families are also fearful of cross-contamination between halal and non-halal food. Hanna Sheikh, also a researcher at AAFSCNY who worked on the study, says sometimes there is no way for Muslim families to know what is safe to eat and what food items are free of no non-halal byproducts. 

“For example, if they go to a food pantry offering canned chili, maybe that canned chili has ground beef in it — but there is no way to know where that meat came from,” she says. 

Ameera Ali is a Muslim senior who has visited two food pantries: ICNA Relief — which is strictly halal, and another near her home, which has now been closed. 

“Here [at ICNA Relief], the food is good because it is halal food. They give you the good stuff — no expired foods. You get groceries, fruits and vegetables. I live alone and I eat everything they give me. It lasts about two days,” Ali says. “[At the other food pantry] they did not give halal food. I would only get a little bit of this and a little bit of that.”

ICNA Relief food pantry volunteers. Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado / Epicenter NYC

Halal-serving food pantries need help & funding.

Halal food pantries are a lifeline for Muslim and halal-observant people who struggle to find food, but often the providers struggle just as much. ICNA Relief is one of the few providers in NYC that can give their clients halal meat. Isaq Alpar, area manager of ICNA Relief in New York, says the meat they provide is essential for their clients, but it comes with a hefty price tag.

“We get a large sum of halal chicken, which is very hard to get. We also have a project called Qurbani, where we slaughter 400-500 goats every year. They are pre-packed and frozen to distribute to our clients. Those items are very costly and we are one of the only organizations that serve these diverse items,” he says. 

However, as pandemic-era funding to food pantries decreases, food pantries like ICNA Relief are being forced to cut back on foods they can give.

“We used to give an abundance of produce items, for example, eight to nine different produce items [such as] spinach, watermelon, oranges, onions and potatoes. Now we can only get one to three,” he says.

Alpar says each pantry can get around 150-200 people per week and about 75% are Muslim. Its Jamaica food pantry operates every Thursday from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. By 10:30 a.m., the line was so long it almost wrapped around the block and by 11:20 a.m., everyone had quickly grabbed their bag of food — the line was gone and the boxes of food were empty.

Patrons picking up food at the ICNA Relief Food Pantry line. Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado / Epicenter NYC

The clients greatly treasure these services. Molly Mollick is the mother of a small child and comes to the Jamaica pantry weekly because it’s halal and near her home.

“Halal food right now is very high, so this is a gift. It’s something helpful for us. They always give me different food. The last two weeks they gave halal chicken, canned food and fresh vegetables. I always [look forward] to getting halal chicken,” she says. 

The pantry couldn’t offer any meat on this particular Thursday, but patrons received a box of macaroni and cheese, raisins, chickpeas, kidney beans, rice, milk and apples. “The process by which halal food is supplied is often unreliable. Even though some food pantries reported that they occasionally get some halal meats, they know that it wasn’t something that they were able to rely on,” says Dillane. 

Dillane explains that to return “back to normal,” we must ensure all New Yorkers receive the support they need.

“Intentional action must be taken to ensure that recovery from Covid is equitable, especially for communities that were hardest hit by the pandemic. They are at risk of being left behind by crucial initiatives if [the city] is not responsive to their particular community needs and are not adaptive to their cultural and linguistic needs,” she says. 

How to Help:

Arab-American Family Support Center:

  • Make a monetary donation to AAFSC’s Family Essentials Pantry. 
  • Donate essential items to its  Family Essentials Pantry, such as diapers, and high-need food items they’ve identified, such as Atta flour, beans, rice, and oil. Contact to coordinate.
  • Volunteer at one of its upcoming food distribution events or view its list of available volunteer opportunities here.

ICNA Relief:

Contact your elected officials to advocate for increased funding and resources for emergency food organizations and initiatives responding to the widespread need for halal food. Find your Assembly member here and State Senator here.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.