Memphis launches halal food pantry

By Kristina Goetz
The Commercial Appeal

MEMPHIS (AP) — For Cherif Ndaw, the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, or festival of sacrifice, involves sharing the meat of a sacrificial lamb with his family. This year, he couldn’t afford it.

But with the help of the city’s newest food pantry, Ndaw was able to observe the holiday with the traditional meal — and adhere to the strictures of Islam by ensuring the food was halal. That means it’s free from pork and alcohol and that the animal was slaughtered under specific guidelines.

“When I get this food, it makes me very, very happy because my family, my kids and my wife, everybody can eat,” said Ndaw, 57, who is originally from Senegal and has lived in Memphis for 12 years. “It was a good holiday for us. When I get that food from the masjid, I give thanks to God. If I don’t have it that day, I would not eat.”

Halal Food Pantry at Masjid Al-Mu’minun, the mosque on South Third Street, is the first food pantry in Memphis to distribute halal food exclusively. It recently received approval to become an official affiliate of the Mid-South Food Bank. It’s also the first halal food pantry in the country to be part of the food distribution system overseen by Feeding America, the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity.

The food pantry, which has just begun distribution, will serve all people regardless or religion or background who are food-insecure in the 38109 ZIP code and cater to the needs of food-insecure Muslims in 31 counties in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas. Mosque members involved in the project have already reached out to community and senior centers as well as officials at Mitchell, Westwood and Fairley high schools for referrals. They also delivered 50 turkeys for Thanksgiving at Goodwill Senior Home and have fed many people in the neighborhood after the traditional Friday prayer.

“There is a great need for food in general,” said Imam Rashad Sharif of Masjid Al-Mu’minun. “One of the particular cases that can give a clear picture is maybe a refugee, someone who is food-insecure and has not established their own connections and networks and ways around, and they go to a food pantry. But they find the food that is offered is food they can’t eat. Then they have a dilemma to go without food or to violate the religious sensitivities of what is or should be proper food. So this halal food pantry caters to that particular need.

“But at the same time, the need of people in general, regardless of religion, is great in this particular area.”

Marcia Wells, communications director at the Mid-South Food Bank, said the food pantry’s application to become an affiliate was expedited because of the opportunity to serve a new community they had not been able to reach previously.

“Plus, this is just a dedicated group of volunteers,” Wells said. “They are very, very committed. … We’re just really excited about it and want to see them come on board.”

Nadeem Zafar, a physician and Mid-South Food Bank board member, approached the mosque about the project after he heard a story about some students who wouldn’t accept food distributed in backpacks at school for needy families because it didn’t meet Muslim dietary requirements. He decided things had to change.

“The point of getting this pantry connected with the food bank is because we have a national target from Feeding America to (distribute) 24 million pounds of food per year over the next four to five years,” Zafar said. “Now we’re only doing 12.4 million pounds of food per year We will never be able to reach that target without involving other minority communities, both culturally based and religion based. So there should be pantries with the Mexican-American community and then the religions like Hindu-American and Sikh-American and Jewish-American and all that. We just took a leadership role.

“We want this to be one of the best pantries in town so that we can go to other communities which are not Muslim, Sikhs and Hindus, and say, ‘Look, we have done it. We are more than happy to help you set these things up’ because then we have the infrastructure of the community, and get people to come together.

“There’s a lot of good that can come out by doing projects like this.”

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