Feed the people

With USDA meetup, Met Council pushes to increase access to kosher, halal foods to people in need

Jewish groups hold virtual conference with government as part of the rollout of the White House’s strategy to combat antisemitism

Some 200 representatives of Jewish communal groups participated in a virtual conference with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of an effort to increase access to kosher and halal foods under the White House’s strategy to combat antisemitism, according to New York’s Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which hosted the event and has been leading this effort.

During the meeting, the more than 200 “national Jewish communal stakeholders” – officials from organizations that are involved in this issue – received an update from the director of the USDA Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Samantha Joseph, as well as Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) on where things stand today and what next steps need to be taken in order to ensure that people who keep kosher and halal and who are dealing with food insecurity are able to receive the food that they need, according to Met Council. The event was also organized by UJA-Federation of New York and Jewish Federations of North America.

Though less discussed than other aspects of the strategy, the White House included a call for the USDA by 2024 to “ensure equal access to all USDA feeding programs for USDA customers with religious dietary needs.”

Met Council CEO David Greenfield told eJewishPhilanthropy that the mere fact that all of those people, representing 16 states and dozens of communities, were together in a meeting on this issue was itself a milestone.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years. For the first time in my lifetime, we gathered everybody across the country who cares about these issues. We had 200 people from 30 cities, and we’re now working together on behalf of the community. I think that’s a game changer,” he said.

There are roughly 11 million Jews and Muslims living in the United States, and approximately a quarter of the former were recently found to be struggling financially, while approximately a third of the latter are living at or below the poverty line. The current lack of kosher and halal food in many national and statewide food pantries and other food insecurity initiatives, potentially leaves those people with a difficult decision.

“If you need food and you have to choose between your religion and food, the reality is that for most people, their cultural and religious dietary needs are going to win out, and people are simply not going to get the food that they need,” Greenfield said.

There are no definitive estimates for how many Jews or Muslims nationwide who are experiencing financial hardship only eat kosher and halal food, but a recent food distribution program in New York City found that more than a fifth of the recipients requested kosher or halal meals, according to a Met Council study.

To that end, Met Council – along with JFNA and other Jewish organizations across the U.S. – are working to increase the number of kosher- and halal-certified foods in the USDA’s food pantries, either by getting the USDA’s vendors to certify the existing brands that they use or by getting them to switch to kosher options. In either case, Greenfield said, the change should not affect the cost of these items.

“People think that kosher food is more expensive and that’s true for things like chicken and meat, but it’s not true when it comes to everything else,” Greenfield said. He acknowledged that while getting foods certified as kosher or halal would likely not increase the cost to customers, it would have the “incidental benefit” of bringing “a little more business for some of the kosher and halal certifiers.”

There are currently eight items in USDA’s food pantries that are required to be certified kosher, out of roughly 200 – a low number but far higher than the one item that was certified until a few years ago.

“The ability to move that number is significant. I think that’s really what we’re trying to do,” Greenfield said.

As part of that effort, Met Council and the other organizations spearheading this effort are pushing for the USDA to create an office specifically focused on kosher and halal foods.

Greenfield said Met Council, which has worked for years to get kosher and halal foods into food pantries, is taking the lead on this effort, but is working closely on it with JFNA, which has greater experience with national lobbying, and other Jewish and Muslim groups. 

Met Council is organizing another meeting for “service providers” — advocates, food providers, wholesalers – on August 10 to get their input before preparing a “lobby day” in Washington sometime in the fall.