Happy Ramadan to all who celebrate! This month-long season is a sacred and important time for Muslim communities around the world, including the ones we serve here in New York City. Though perhaps best known as a time for fasting, it’s also a time for gathering with family and friends around an Iftar meal. It’s a time of charity, of giving back. And, most importantly, it’s a time to reenergize for the year to come, to set intentions and manifest abundance for your neighbors and yourself.
How does all of this connect back to Food Bank? Well, the spirit of Ramadan is baked right into our mission. As the Director of our Community Kitchen & Food Pantry Sultana Ocasio recently told me, “During Ramadan, I could walk into a mosque where no one knows me and get fed... [and that] informs my work throughout the year in terms of serving folks in a way that’s not prohibitive or judgmental. It’s about welcoming people to the Community Kitchen the same way you’d welcome someone into your home.”
As practicing Muslims will know, this idea of open-hearted charity (or Zakat) is a major tenet of Islam. Though required year-round, the practice takes on new meaning during Ramadan. For many, performing Zakat through food is an important rite of the season, whether by providing dried dates and rice to loved ones at an Iftar meal, or donating time, money, and resources to food pantries and soup kitchens. Though fasting during Ramadan isn’t necessarily about reflecting on the systemic nature of hunger, it does provide folks with an opportunity to think critically about their relationships with food.
“It gives you empathy, though that’s not the purpose,” explained Ocasio. “Feeling your body weak with hunger and thirst, you can’t help but think of those who don’t have a choice, who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.”
At Food Bank, we’re in a unique position to mobilize that empathy in service of one of the largest Muslim populations in the United States. According to a report from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, nearly 800,000 Muslims live in NYC, which means that approximately 22% of all of America’s Muslims live right here in the Big Apple. This diverse populace includes descendants of Muslims who have lived in the US since before its founding as well as immigrants from over 75 different countries.
To serve our Muslim neighbors, we provide halal meat at our Food Pantry and also partner with halal agencies across the city to get culturally appropriate food into the hands of those who need it most. But having the food itself is just one piece of the puzzle – we’re also doing the work to build trust within these communities to let them know that our halal meat actually adheres to halal requirements.
“I wear a scarf and approach people with the greetings of Salaams. When I approach to offer halal meat to clients, there’s still a level of doubt. They can’t believe it’s really halal," says Ocasio. “If you normally get halal meat, you usually go to a specific halal butcher, so coming to a place like Food Bank, you may not trust that it’s actually halal.”
To get the word out, Ocasio has spoken to local Imams to let their congregants know about the halal food available at our Kitchen, but says it’s been a slow process. In her words: “It takes time to develop that trust, it really takes time.”
But for Ocasio, and for us, it’s time well spent. By developing that trust, we’re not only able to better distribute our halal resources, but we’re also able to destigmatize some of the shame associated with standing on a pantry line, which Ocasio says can be challenging for certain communities.
“I think a barrier for some folks is the actual visibility of going to a food pantry. In some cultures, going to a food pantry is not considered a big deal at all. But for other cultures, folks will get talked about in their community. For a lot of people who are immigrants, coming to this country meant that they’re supposed to be making money and providing resources to their families back home... [so the question becomes] how could you come to this country and go on a food line? The visibility of receiving food or admitting it can be extremely difficult for some people.”
Though we can’t dismantle this shame overnight, we can do our part to chip away at it over time. We do this by providing resources that affirm the cultures, beliefs, and traditions of the folks we serve. We do this by training our staff to be sensitive to the unique needs of our clients. And we do this by centering and prioritizing the dignity of everyone who walks through our doors.
Whether you observe Ramadan or not, these questions of inclusion, equity, and access are important ones to think about. They’re certainly ones we ponder throughout the year, and ones we hope to answer in tandem with you. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to fighting hunger, and so our work must be nuanced and hyper-focused on the lived experiences of our neighbors. In truth, there is simply no replacement for meeting people where they’re at, asking what they need, and delivering it to them without judgement or shame.
To support us in this work and to get involved yourself, click here. And feel free to join us for “Iftar on the Go” an initiative with NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer and Islamic Relief in which we’ll be providing free halal Iftar meals at our Community Kitchen in Harlem. Distributions will be on April 15, April 22, April 29, and May 6 at 4 pm.