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Exchange-Halal Food Pantry

Bilal Simmons sorts through peanut butter and other non-perishables for 32 families as volunteers gather at the Midtown Mosque to package Halal food for fellow Muslims in need around the neighborhood.

Three years ago, two high school students met with leaders at their local mosque to create an all-inclusive food pantry, and on Oct. 12 they opened a building to better serve the surrounding neighborhood.

The Halal Food Pantry began as an idea by 19-year-olds Sabriyya Shaw and Osman Celikok to engage their fellow peers in community service.

"In Islam, we have an obligation to feed people, so that's a big reason we started it," Shaw said. "We wanted to help the community as a masjid (mosque). We wanted to advocate for young people in the community and get them involved."

Shaw and Celikok spoke with Imam Hamzah Abdul-Malik of Midtown Mosque about a plan to create a food pantry that would provide halal options.

Halal is the Arabic word for permissible, which refers to anything that is allowed according to Islamic law. When used in reference to meats, halal means that the animal has been killed in the name of Allah with as little pain as possible.

After Abdul-Malik approved the idea, Shaw and Celikok got to work. They went door to door and asked people if they would like to be added to a list for deliveries.

They signed up volunteers and created a monthly distribution event. About 10 to 15 community volunteers package and deliver food on the second Saturday of every month.

"No matter what, snow or rain, we will be out there every Saturday at 11 a.m.," Celikok said. "The people know it and we keep our commitment."

The project received funding from various local mosques and community groups like the North American Bangladeshi Islamic Community in Memphis and the Pakistan Association of Memphis.

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And now the mobile pantry is expanding to a food bank.

"Right now, we are in a transition," said Tahira Abdul-Malik, a volunteer who has been in charge of the mobile food pantry and building optics. "We are letting the neighborhood know there is a building available for them to get their food."

Over the past two years, the organizers saw an increase in demand for food so they decided to open a brick and mortar on 1276 Jackson Ave. for clients to pick up their food. The pantry will continue to do monthly deliveries as they recognize some people rely on their deliveries.

As an industry partner of the Midsouth Food Bank, Abdul-Malik said they hope to expand the project, possibly partnering with University of Tennessee Health Science Center for a nursing clinic.

"The first thing is not just providing food; it's also providing health and nutrition education," Abdul-Malik said.

Susan Tulino started volunteering two years ago when she heard about the pantry at the annual Open Mosque Day at Midtown Mosque. As a non-Muslim, she was hesitant at first but found the experience to be heartwarming.

"I came in with biases and they completely shattered them," Tulino said. "People were incredibly welcoming. It's a moving and evolving relationship, dispelling all negativity."

She said the deliveries have been eye-opening, showing her the different economic standards within the neighborhood. She has participated every month for the past two years and continues to do so.

"I go back for the heartwarming feeling when we get together and work," Tulino said.

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Entertainment Editor/Features Reporter

Eloise is A&E Editor and a food, entertainment and features writer for The Times, subjects she has covered for over two decades in and around the Region. She was the youngest of eight in a Chicago household filled with fantastic cooks and artists.