Diet, matters

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Where I was born and grew up, people consume and cook a number of different food items, things that most people in Canada would be unfamiliar with. There aren’t too many things that I grew up eating that are sold here in the local stores, just like there aren’t a lot of people selling hot dogs on street corners where I was born. Food is very different depending on where you are in the world.

Some of the food items I grew up eating you can find here in Canada, but they are very expensive to buy, because it comes from different countries or only comes from specialty shops. That may be because our climate isn’t suited to growing the food item, or, no one has decided it is a good business to grow them locally due to limited demand. On the other hand, some things when I buy them here are much different.  Here I can buy a mango for a dollar or two (or more!) but back home a dollar would buy a huge bag of them, and you wouldn’t believe how sweet they are!

We live in a multicultural community her in Waterloo Region. We have people from all different types of cultures and backgrounds and even though they adjust to their new home they still have a lot of their cultural, religious and personal food preferences.  Think about how you feel about your Tim Horton’s coffee, poutine, maple syrup or other favourite Canadian food item when or if you’re far from home travelling in a different part of the world. Think of the things you ate with your family growing up.  The things that give you comfort and you enjoy sharing with your own children (if you’re at that point in your life).

In addition to that, people have a lot of dietary restrictions because of medical conditions or allergies. If you can’t eat wheat or are lactose intolerant it really has an impact on what your options are when you go to the grocery store or a restaurant..

Now, imagine you’re coming to a food bank and you need help feeding your family.  How are you going to take all your food preferences, likes and dislikes and fit them into a box of different items that strangers put together for you?

To respect people’s dietary concerns, we try to provide food according to people’s personal preferences as well as their medical or religious dietary preferences.

In the year 2009 EFHP Served 9959 Households in total.  About 5 % of those households were Muslims who told us they only wanted halal foods.  About 6.6 % households told us they wanted food that did not contain pork or pork byproducts and about 2 % of the households wanted Vegetarian or Vegan foods.

People tell us they want to avoid pork for a number of cultural or religious reasons.  Many different branches of Christianity follow Old Testament dietary codes that forbid the consumption of pork and a host of other things.  It is extremely rare to get at request for Kosher foods. I think most people are familiar with Vegetarianism – they don’t eat meat but will each cheese and milk etc.  Vegans on the other hand don’t eat any animal products at all. So no meat, yogurt or milk or cheese for them.

But what are halal foods? What does halal mean? Today I would like to write about halal and haram in Islam. In Islam, Muslims are directed to eat halal food and avoid eating haram food.

In Arabic, the word halal, means lawful or permitted. Halal foods are foods that are allowed under Islamic dietary guidelines. A halal diet is carefully and seriously used by those of the Muslim faith. Muslims can consume Beef, Lamb, Goat, Camel, Turkey, Chicken and Fish. Animals must get slaughtered according to Islamic regulation. Fish is always considered to be a safe part of the halal diet.

What is Haram? Haram means unlawful and prohibited. According to these guidelines, gathered from the Holy Quran, Muslim followers cannot consume the following:

  • Swine / Pork or Pork by products
  • Animals that were dead prior to slaughtering (i.e. killed by other animals, died from sickness)
  • Animals not slaughtered properly according the Islamic regulations.
  • Blood and blood by products
  • Alcohol and other intoxicants like illegal drugs.

The Holy Quran makes it clear that if you are in a difficult situation and you’re forced between a choice of starvation or eating non-halal foods, you can eat food that isn’t halal.  Many people however will go without if halal alternatives are not available.

The Emergency Food Hamper program does its best to provide food for the people who have special diets but getting appropriate items like halal meat can be a struggle. To ensure the other foods we give out, like soup, yogurt and even cookies, are halal (or vegetarian, no pork, low sodium etc.) we all spend a good deal of time reading ingredients lists. There are many dairy based foods and other products which contain pork gelatin or lard and thus, are not halal. Often, the patrons we are serving give us a hand trying to figure out what is OK and what is not.  It is amazing how many different foods contain animal products of one sort or another.  Start reading some labels, you’ll be surprised.

EFHP receives halal meat donation from different local businesses, Mosques, Islamic organizations and private individuals in Waterloo region. Ammar Halal Meat Market is one of these local stores in Kitchener, from whom we receive most of our halal meat donations from.

In 2009 we received around 2900 pound of Halal meat donation. We also purchased about 3200 pound of Halal meat with funds explicitly donated to do that.

It’s wonderful that our program helps people and in the mean time it’s great that we provide food according to people’s special diets. We have visited many different Food Banks in the Greater Toronto Area, Guelph etc. I believe we are one of the largest and busiest food hamper programs in Ontario and perhaps one of the few food hamper programs that consistently provides halal meat for the Muslims in need.

People really respect and appreciate our program in terms of receiving food according their religion and special diet. Our Muslim patrons are also thankful for having such a versatile program in the community.

I remember one example of how we were able to use the generous donations of halal foods we receive to help someone.

It was February 2005, a Monday morning. I received a call from one of the staff at the Reception Center which is a shelter for refugees and new comers in downtown Kitchener.  He said a single mom with two children had just arrived to Canada as a refugee and was placed at the shelter while the government paperwork was being sorted out.  He also told me that they were Muslims, couldn’t speak English and that they needed food.  Could we help and did we have any halal foods for her?

I asked the staff person at the shelter what language the woman spoke and, thankfully it turned out I spoke her language and it was easy for her to tell me what was going on once she was on the phone. Apparently she arrived on the previous Friday and she was suffering from a high fever and was very sick.  On top of that, she had not had anything to eat over the weekend. She told me that there was a couple of small yogurt containers in the fridge but that she was afraid to eat them, because it might be someone else’s food and she was not sure if it was halal since she couldn’t read what the ingredients were. So she spent the whole weekend without food for herself but thankfully she had enough formula for her two infants, who it turned out, were twins.

After listening to her, I felt a kind of anxiety and I felt sad for her because she travelled a long way to finally arrive to Canada and couldn’t find food to eat for the last two days. It’s not unusual for us at the program to hear the sad or upsetting details of our patrons’ lives, but this one resonated strongly with me.

I wanted to send her the food as quick as possible. So, after discussing the situation with my coworkers I packed and rushed the hamper to the shelter as soon as I hung up the phone.

I entered the shelter with a couple boxes of food, and she was waiting in the lobby. I introduced myself and gave her the food. She was extremely happy to see me, and I explained about the program and offered additional help in terms of translation. I was proud to be there and help her.

She also had no clothes other than the ones she as wearing or towels and other necessary things for her the kids. I spoke with my wife on the phone and asked her if she could put some kid’s clothes and towels together for her, since my own children had outgrown them. We gathered some other items that had been donated to the program and got them to her straight away.

The next day my wife prepared a traditional meal and we took it to the shelter for them to help ease the sudden and difficult transition to Canada.  Then I contacted the Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support to help get her paperwork filled out and I helped her with some additional translation services as well.

After eating the food and receiving a little help she was very grateful and happy that someone was there help through a very difficult and anxious time.  Personally, I felt very grateful as well to be a part of this program and to be able to assist her through this program, taking the generous offerings of the community, and getting them to someone who needed them the most.

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8 Responses to “Diet, matters”

  1. Christine Says:

    Great post Nadir. Thanks for explaining about Halal and Haram, and for the wonderful story at the end – perfect as we approach Thanksgiving. Only one problem; after reading your post, I’m craving steak and kidney pie, my favourite English pub grub:)

  2. Taylor Says:

    I’m glad that House of Friendship respects people’s religion and works with different faith communities to ensure that we care for all people’s needs. It is surely a blessing to give and recieve. All of us have something to offer and something to give.

  3. Nadir Says:

    Thanks for the comment Christine;
    Hmmm! Steak is my favourite too.

  4. Michael Hackbusch Says:

    Thanks for reminding us of the diversity of dietary requirements and that these are differences that acknowledge the whole person. What we eat is significant in so many ways. In terms of ‘identity’ it is especially significant that we honour peoples country of origin, cultural identity and religious affiliation and the dietery requirements there of. Not only is it a demonstration of loving our neighbours but also it is an acknowledement that we value who people are – our new neighbours shouldn’t be expected to be like me (boring) they add to the wonderful and glorious mosaic of our communtiy just as they are. And, in hearing stories such as this, we can examine more closely how we choose to meet our dietary requirements too, and perhaps find meaning.

  5. Volunteer Spotlight – Bob « Hofemergencyfoodassistance's Blog Says:

    […] boxes of frozen products that we receive from the Food Bank each week, and also works to package Halal […]

  6. Volunteer Spotlight: Willard « Hofemergencyfoodassistance's Blog Says:

    […] reason I enjoy packing hampers is because it’s taught me about some other cultures such as Halal diets. I wouldn’t say I’ve become an expert, since I always encourage patrons to check through their […]

  7. The question box: how do we get the food we give out? « Hofemergencyfoodassistance's Blog Says:

    […] Finally, Ammar Halal Meat Market, located close to us on Lancaster Street, donates hundreds of pounds of halal meat to us each year. Most of the other meat we receive contains pork or pork byproducts, and it’s important for us to be able to give people meat if they only eat halal. To learn more about this, read Nadir’s blog here. […]

  8. First Days and a Typical Day at the Food Hamper Program | Hofemergencyfoodassistance's Blog Says:

    […] choices can vary household to household, and the program accommodates many different diets. This reflects our knowledge of the diversity of our clientele. There are three dietary […]

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