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MSU Culinary Services has strengthened its partnership with Muslim students, faculty and support staff to make them feel more at home on campus.

Viewpoint: How Michigan State’s Chef Kurt Kwiatkowski builds bridges with Muslim community through cuisine

What happens when MSU Spartans are away from home during the holidays? Understanding Muslim students’ needs and collaborating with them has been especially important this academic year because Ramadan intersects the school calendar for the first time in more than 20 years.

Leaving home for college can be a transformative experience filled with a myriad of firsts. For many students nationwide, especially those close to family, one difficult first is spending a holiday away from loved ones. With a diverse community of nearly 50,000 students, Michigan State University (MSU) is home to Spartans with countless backgrounds, beliefs and upbringings. There is so much to consider when supporting such a distinct cultural landscape.

When reflecting on our campus framework, a significant consideration is the role of food in building community. It provides a means to celebrate and is deeply rooted across generations, connecting us with our ancestors and the history of this institution. In addition, food is central to shaping personal identity from passing down recipes to discovering unique cuisine and expressing traditions.

One way we can expand our knowledge of different cultures and their traditional cuisine is through active listening and exploration. For MSU Culinary Services (CS), pursuing innovative partnerships and cultivating a sense of belonging are at the core of our efforts, especially if our efforts support student success. Over the years, we have learned a great deal about the impact of food, leveraging the collaborative nature of our campus and our team’s commitment to undergoing continuous growth.

Senior Executive Chef Kurt Kwiatkowski, who oversees the culinary vision, systems and strategy for all residential dining halls on campus, has advocated for authenticity in our menu selections. “I hope that my willingness to listen to and learn from people has helped shape the many dishes we create,” he says. “Whether it’s adjusting one component of how a recipe is followed or using specific brands of ingredients, every bit of knowledge assists our team in serving genuine cuisine.”

In his 16 years with CS, Kwiatkowski has developed innumerable relationships with Spartans, hearing their perspectives and adapting our dining options to meet their needs better. The department recently strengthened our partnership with Muslim students, faculty and support staff to make them feel more at home on campus.

Understanding their needs and collaborating with them has been especially important this academic year because Ramadan intersects the school calendar for the first time in more than 20 years.

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Lamb burger with roasted tomatoes, part of MSU’s Ramadan menu.

Laying the foundation

The culinary team at MSU has a long history of collaboration with the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA), focusing on adjusting menus that contain ingredients not permissible in Islam and supplying Halal meats on campus. Additionally, past events were organized at The Vista at Shaw dining hall for Eid al-Adha, the second of two Muslim holidays celebrated worldwide each year. Students attending the events showed a sincere interest in learning about the Muslim traditions and culture, including the sense of community involved in sharing a meal and the underlying importance of the celebration.

When it comes to sourcing Halal proteins, MSU has partnered with Northern Lakes Seafood & Meats as our primary provider for several years. We made the conscious decision to only procure whole chickens and lamb that are certified Halal.

“Because Halal is an essential part of the Islamic faith, we want to ensure our guests feel comfortable,” Kwiatkowski says. “Serving only whole chickens and lamb that are Halal makes it easier on the staff as well. They don’t have to question whether or not they’re selecting the right product from our stock.”

Northern Lakes has an innate understanding of our specifications and they have been dedicated to fulfilling orders, even with a short lead time. Since the 1960s, our MSU Food Stores operation, which procures, warehouses and distributes food for campus dining, has built solid partnerships with suppliers. As we continue to navigate supply chain challenges that are a product of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of fostering these connections has never been more evident. We can source high-quality products through these relationships, including Halal proteins served on campus.

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This Ramadan breakfast option starts the day with inclusivity.

Dedicated to ongoing dialogue

About three years ago, Kwiatkowski started having more in-depth discussions with the MSA and collaborating with the Muslim Studies Program at MSU. An outcome of these conversations was a plan for Ramadan in 2020. Kwiatkowski and Associate Director of Residential Dining Don Donagrandi worked alongside these campus partners to finalize our preparations early that year.

“Students grow accustomed to coming together with loved ones during a time of religious observance or celebration,” Donagrandi says. “When they’re away from home to further their education, it’s so important that we do everything we can to support them, particularly during these holidays.” [FT3] 

Before Ramadan began in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, and the food service on campus changed rapidly. Although fewer locations were operating because most students went home, the team implemented the plan to the extent they could and offered dining options for those who stayed on campus during Ramadan.

As we continued through the following academic year and health and safety concerns remained, Kwiatkowski made a conscious effort to keep the lines of communication open. Similar to the prior school year, few students were on campus in 2020-21 and a limited number of dining locations remained open.

Approaching the fall semester of 2021, it was clear that MSU planned to vastly increase in- person learning and the number of students living on campus. As a result, the culinary team began meeting with the MSA and Muslim Studies Program every month, primarily in a virtual format to start the year. Their first in-person meeting and introduction were in March 2022.

“Since the start of the year, this experience has been like no other,” says junior Nadir Hamid, MSA president. “The level of dedication to serving students and the focus on equitable practices is something that Kurt, Don and the culinary team truly embody in their everyday work.”

Although the collaboration focuses on other aspects of food service at MSU, enhancing the menu for Ramadan continues to be a priority for the group. Furthermore, Kwiatkowski has embraced their conversations, spreading the knowledge gained from meetings to other CS staff.

“It’s getting to meet and know other people who work and go to school on campus, hearing their perspectives, and building a culture of understanding,” he says. “Explaining to our executive chefs what we’re going to do and why it’s important is much more effective than providing a document without the additional context. And because we’re Spartans, we’re going to try our best to take it to the highest level.”

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This beef bulgogi bowl with brown rice taps into the enduring bowl trend.

Providing creative options and thoughtful support

Leading up to Ramadan in 2022, CS leadership authorized the executive chef overseeing each campus dining operation to expand the dinner menu. In 2021, we had fewer locations open, which resulted in limited offerings. During the observance this year, the culinary team truly had an opportunity to innovate and implement the initial plan developed with the MSA.

“Instead of serving the same options at each location, we allowed our chefs to be creative and play to their strengths,” Kwiatkowski explained.

Dinner selections are available at four residential dining halls and include a Halal protein complete plate option and an occasional vegan/vegetarian complete plate option. This year examples of menu items we’ve served include a lamb burger with roasted tomatoes, cod with red pepper tapenade, herb roasted potatoes and steamed mixed vegetables, and a beef bulgogi bowl with brown rice.

Throughout the preparation and discussions, our team learned the importance of offering specific cuisine and the timing of meals. For example, Kwiatkowski spoke of the significance of Medjool dates as a source of energy and nutrients, helping to sustain guests longer.

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We incorporated them into our new to-go breakfast options that students observing Ramadan can grab during dinner service. The two selections available each day incorporate hard-cooked eggs, two slices of naan bread with peanut butter, Medjool dates, milk and mango juice. For the entrée, one option features a vegetable quinoa bowl with Halal chicken, and the other includes apple raisin overnight oats.

“The ability for our culinary staff to push back timings to accommodate for observing Muslims and provide a Suhur (morning meal before Fajr prayer) package is something which I am incredibly proud of,” Hamid says.

Mohammad Khalil, a professor of religious studies, an adjunct professor of law and the director of the Muslim Studies Program, is also grateful for the increased availability of food during Ramadan. “I have never seen a dining team as thoughtful and considerate,” he says. “Kurt and Don have gone above and beyond anything that I have experienced over the past two and a half decades as a student and professor at three Big Ten institutions.”

An important element to offering these options is sourcing products within a disrupted supply chain. As in the case of our Halal proteins, the procurement team at MSU has done a phenomenal job ensuring all orders are on track and we’re able to sustain these menu items.

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Continuing to learn and grow

The ongoing partnership with the MSA and Muslim Studies Program will be increasingly important as Ramadan aligns with the school year at MSU. In the Islamic calendar, the timing of the holiday varies from year to year and lasts either 29 or 30 days, depending on when the new crescent moon is, or should be, visible.

“As a student leader, my goal is to serve the MSA by advocating for my community’s needs,” Hamid says. “Within this experience, the culinary staff was able to stand right by my side and helped to achieve my goals. Through this process, I especially appreciated the willingness to learn and the ability to adapt practices.”

In addition to continuing our Ramadan options through the end of the observance, the culinary team planned a two-day special celebration for Eid al-Fitr on May 2-3 at several campus dining halls. Eid al-Fitr commemorates the end of fasting in Ramadan, also known as the Festival of Breaking the Fast.

Our culinary team collaborated with a new location to source desserts for the celebration. Shatila Bakery, located in the Detroit area, works directly with one of our long-standing vendors Woody’s Oasis Mediterranean Deli of East Lansing.

“To me, this partnership helped us view everything through a new lens,” Kwiatkowski explained. “It goes beyond Ramadan to a broader evaluation of our menus. For example, we are looking at how to offer desserts without alcohol, typically present in vanilla, so we can identify possible substitute products and test them in the future to continue improving.”

The ongoing conversation and commitment of Kwiatkowski have significantly impacted the Muslim community at MSU and accentuated the vital role of food in building the campus community.

“Kurt has demonstrated incredible initiative, having reached out to us to ensure the dining experience is as inclusive and welcoming as possible,” Khalil says. “I look forward to additional monthly meetings and an even more accommodating campus community.”

The department also looks forward to future engagement and collaboration to continue making strides in adapting our dining services and menu options to be more inclusive. “We encourage our guests to explore new flavors and experience unique cuisine,” Donagrandi says. “Through partnerships like the one we’ve formed with the MSA and Muslim Studies Program, our team can help spread cultural awareness among the campus community, and that’s so important as MSU continues to advance diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.”

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