“Freshman 15.” These are often the two scariest words a first-year student can hear from anyone besides “You’ve failed.” This phenomenon is one that has been popularized throughout universities in the United States as a rite of passage most freshmen go through during their first year. Even as an international student, I was aware of this phrase, and vehemently denied the claims of any family or friends who said that I’d return home 15 pounds heavier during the winter break. However, I soon discovered that besides the low nutritional value of food, I needed to worry about the way religion impacted the way I could eat.
In my short time here at Case Western Reserve University, I’ve eaten at most places that are within walking distance of the North Residential Village (NRV) or the quad, including the standard dining hall for NRV, Leutner Commons. This dining hall is home to a wide variety of substandard food, available for a meal swipe worth $17.95. However, what offends me is not the lack of taste, but rather the absence of consideration for individuals with dietary restrictions specific to their religion. Although the meal plan for students eating halal and kosher exists, that doesn’t prevent the staff from using the same utensils used to stir-fry beef, chicken, pork and tofu.
This impacts all individuals who are Hindu or Muslim or live by other religiously constrained diets and cannot eat foods that have contacted certain ingredients. Some might say there is a simple solution to this problem, which is to simply ask for your food to be cooked in a different pan. While this is an option, students are often afraid of speaking up in order to avoid annoying the staff. While there is an immense pressure associated with cooking for a large group of people with different specifications, I do believe that a solid organizational framework for staff and students can aid in increasing the efficacy and ethics of the food preparation and serving process.
Feeling too afraid or intimidated to request food that students pay a significant amount of money for should not deter students from practicing their religions. To help bridge the gap between culinary staff and students on campus, the Diversity 360 and cultural sensitivity training modules should extend beyond Discover Week to other staff members at CWRU. These trainings will help bridge the gap between students and faculty in terms of cultural and religious understanding, and they will foster a stronger community on campus.
Although students should understand that running the dining halls for over 5,000 students across campus is no small feat, students should also have the space to live by the rules of their respective religions. Food service on campus is a major part of this, especially at Leutner, which services over 1,300 first-year students still adjusting to life away from home, where they should not have to sacrifice religious beliefs and practices for the sake of others’ convenience.
Is the only barrier between us and acceptance one utensil away? The answer is that it is never this simple. This policy change must be accompanied by social change on campus to better accommodate religious students, which must be adopted across campus, or it might as well have not been enacted at all. We should all expect more from our campus in protecting our basic rights to religion, rather than prioritizing efficiency in auxiliary services.
Nivriti Sabhnani is a biomedical engineering major with an intense passion for pop tarts and organized checklists.