Photo: Premila D'Sa

Keeping kosher at all costs

In Features /

By Brie Davis

Heading out the doors of the Rogers Communication Centre (RCC), third-year RTA School of Media student Tamar Lyons is on the hunt for lunch before her next class. Today is a long day, with classes running from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. With few breaks, she needs to ensure she has a healthy meal to keep her going.

For Lyons, keeping kosher on campus is harder than it may seem. Walking down Gould Street in the dead of winter, this short 15-minute walk feels like a lifetime. She watches as people in their heated cars whiz by, stirring the grey slush around on top of the curb as she walks along. The cold nips at her nose, her fingers numbing inside the thin pockets of her winter jacket. She wishes she could have just gone to any of the local restaurants around campus, or even the Metro just across the street from the RCC.

Instead, here she is, walking down Elm Street, hungry for some of the only kosher food available in the downtown core: King David Pizza, located in the food court of Mount Sinai Hospital.

All this for a slice of pizza.

The restaurant is in the middle of a bustling hospital. Lyons is surrounded by doctors and nurses trying to grab a quick bite between patients. It’s not a usual location for those looking for food downtown, most people eat there only because they can’t leave the hospital. Usually Lyons is joined by other kosher-eating friends or non-religious Jews who understand the specifics of a kosher diet, and the lengths she has to go to to get suitable food. As for her non-Jewish friends, she doesn’t want to bring them out of their way to a hospital for food when they are able to eat at closer and cheaper places. But today, she’s alone.

Lyons is an Orthodox Jew, meaning she has to stick to eating only kosher food. While at school, this requires her to either stay up late or wake up early before class to prepare her meal for the day. She can go out and grab food from places like King David Pizza, but when she is out with friends who aren’t Jewish, she usually forgoes eating altogether. Instead, she waits until she gets home to eat. It’s uncomfortable for Lyons to make her friends go to a restaurant that can accommodate her diet, and it’s complicated to explain kosher to non-kosher restaurants.

When grabbing something to eat on campus, the only fully kosher options readily available—including the university cafeterias and the Metro on Gould Street—are chips and small snacks, as well as fruits and vegetables, depending on if they are prepared properly.

“The real difficult part is the day-to-day life”

King David Pizza is one of the only kosher restaurants in the downtown core. It costs around $5 for a single slice of pizza, or upwards of $10 for anything more substantial, such as a salad or a sandwich. While these high prices may bother those who don’t know the struggles of keeping kosher, for Lyons, it’s become a fact of life.

Much like Lyons, there are a lot of students on campus who have to go out of their way to find Kosher food on campus due to the lack of accessibility. Hillel Ryerson, a campus group for Jewish students, have helped close that gap by providing food on specific occasions, but that doesn’t help students with day-to-day eating. However, with the lack of visible activism on campus, Ryerson Eats—the university’s food services—doesn’t feel the pressure to include more kosher options on their menus, leaving some students to fend for themselves.

The lack of availability has caught the attention of Hillel members, who hope to work alongside Ryerson to ensure Jewish students feel equally included in the menus on campus. Geoffrey Handelman, a second-year student and the student president of Hillel Ryerson, says that the group would be more than willing to reach out and help Ryerson’s food services with the logistics of bringing in kosher food.

“[We] wish that more kosher food would be accessible at Ryerson,” Handelman says. “[We] could probably help with budget and other convenience issues.”

Personally, Handelman is also affected by the kosher access on campus. He knows first hand how students feel about their diets not being included on campus.

“I feel saddened that Jewish students that keep kosher are at a disadvantage on campus,” Handelman says. “It would be so special if this wasn’t the case, and I’m positive Ryerson is taking the necessary steps towards this reality.”

Of the three major dining halls on campus (the Hub Café, Pitman Dining Hall and International Living & Learning Centre Dining Hall), none of them have specific kosher meals for Jewish students. They do, however, have specific allergy and dietary menus for students who need vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and halal meals. All chicken on the menu is halal, without special request, as it was a very close price to regular chicken from the vendor to order, so Ryerson Eats made the decision to always order halal.

Not having anything kosher available to eat isn’t a surprise to Lyons. Growing up Jewish, she knows how hard and expensive kosher meals are to come by in the city.

“I don’t expect people to go out of their way to accomodate me”

“I don’t expect people to go out of their way to accommodate me. And I think that a lot of people in my community understand that themselves,” Lyons says. “Kosher is a really big and complicated thing.”

With support from Hillel, Lyons was also in contact last year with both the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) and the Good Food Centre to try and increase internal support for their cause. Unfortunately, because exams rolled around, and Passover, a major Jewish holiday was coming up, Lyons was unable to set up a meeting. She intends on scheduling more meet- ings to address the issue and try to find a plan to implement more kosher food availability for the future.

The only way for the school to recognize the issue with the lack of kosher food on campus is if those who require it speak out about their concerns. However, there currently is not a lot of student activism to bring the issue to light.

“I wouldn’t say the university is specifically not supporting us,” Lyons says. “I just don’t think that they’ve heard enough from us.”

The month before starting university, Lyons wasn’t sure how she was supposed to follow her kosher diet during her RTA orientation, and had to figure out alternate plans. The year ahead already seemed stressful enough, but it felt even more daunting knowing the arrangements she had to make. She fired off an email to her program coordinator to see if anything could be done so she wouldn’t go without food the whole day. She could carry along a lunch bag full of things to eat, but that’s not ideal on a hot summer day. She didn’t expect much, if anything, to happen, especially anything positive. Being one of about 300 people in her pro“gram, why would they go out of their way to bring something in for her?

When the response to Lyons’ email landed back into her inbox, she wasn’t holding her breath for accommodations, since it usually isn’t possible. Rather, she was pleasantly surprised and relieved, when she read there would definitely be something for her to eat. She was even more surprised when she showed up—usually, when people say they can accommodate a kosher diet, they have a salad or some kind of vegetarian dish to eat. But this time, they ordered in an entire box of kosher pizza specifically for Lyons.

This type of accommodation is common when it comes to larger parties and events. In cases such as the RSU general meetings and mandatory student union meetings, they bring in kosher food. Normally, however, this is only when attendees go out of their way to make sure they will be accommodated.

 Each individual meal can cost about $60 

“The real part that is difficult is the day-to-day life, not being able to find kosher, prepared food on campus the same way you can find halal prepared food,” Lyons says.

According to Walter Da Silva, General Manager at Ryerson Eats, the only way to accommodate kosher meals is by catering orders as individual meals, which have a high price point. Each individual meal can cost approximately $60, due to the extensive preparation requirements. They cannot prepare kosher meals in-house because of the space requirements for an entirely kosher kitchen, as well as the need to have a mashgiach, someone who supervises the kitchen to ensure all cooking methods are properly kosher.

Da Silva recommends making an appointment to speak to both a manager and chef at food services to go over the menu and see what they are able to eat. After going through the menu, they will work one-on-one with the student to accommodate them.

“The good news is that we have been working with an offsite kitchen to provide more kosher meals at reasonable prices and hope to incorporate more kosher meals into Ryerson Eats by late fall,” Da Silva said via email.

Although they intend to implement these items soon, it is not specified what food it is or how it will be prepared.

Just like having their dietary needs recognized, having a space where Jewish students can sit and mingle amongst their community is important, especially on a campus where there is only about 1,000 Jewish students, according to Hillel. The presence of the group gives Jewish students an opportunity to connect with other students in their culture. The loft space, Hillel’s “headquarters,” gives students an open space to meet other Jewish students on Ryerson’s campus.

“These Hillel lunches are the best thing ever,” says Lyons. “It’s really convenient.”

Every week at 21 Dundas Square, Hillel holds a lunch for all students to enjoy. Students both Jewish and not, move throughout the large, open space. Between the white walls is a welcoming and positive environment for everyone to feel comfortable and relaxed amongst the crowd. Blue and yellow accents throughout the room show off Ryerson pride. Students are lounging on the couches, enjoying the usual menu of bagels with cream cheese, lox and veggies. Others are using the time to chat with newcomers, including the shy first-years who are excited to find their crowd in Hillel. Laughter erupts as students swing back and forth on the newly installed swings that are hanging from the ceiling. Between snacking, other students are also shooting hoops at the small basketball nets at the other side of the room.

This type of friendly environment helps make up for it being the only real option for kosher on campus. There is hope that this will change, but for now, what these students have created will have to do.

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