The Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center has long partnered with Faith in Place and other interfaith organizations in Champaign/Urbana. One of the most popular events they host is the Interfaith Iftar – an opportunity for people from other faith traditions to experience the traditional community meal celebrated each evening during Ramadan.
People gather shortly before sunset, as the fast is about to be broken, and are welcomed with warmth and friendship. A leader from the community explains the custom of breaking fast with water and a date, and everyone is invited to witness evening prayers in the sanctuary before returning to their tables for dinner.
This year, above the dining area, a monitor displayed graphs detailing the results of an initiative the community had undertaken to reduce the amount of waste, especially food waste, generated by these large dinners. We asked Omar Al Batalji, who has headed up the effort this year, to share his thoughts on the project with Faith in Place. Here is some of what he said:
Why is Ramadan is a good time to go "Green"?
In Ramadan, Muslims practice self-control by fasting from dawn to sunset from food, drinks and intimacy. It’s an occasion to acquire new good habits and to get rid of bad habits. It’s also an occasion to feel with the poor and the hungry. Going “Green” is thus very consistent with the theme of Ramadan: training yourself not to waste or over-eat, realizing that this scoop of food which you are throwing could feed a hungry kid or elderly person, and trying to decrease the negative environmental impact on humans and creatures.
What motivated you to get a team of folks together to do this project?
This project started a while back, after realizing the amount of food waste and trash generated by the community dinners. With 200 to 400 people attending everyday, even small improvements can make a huge difference. Knowing that one of each 6 kids in Champaign County has food insecurity was a bothering fact which made us feel the responsibility and need for this kind of effort.
Brother Izzat Elhajj, who recently moved to become a professor in Engineering in Lebanon, revived this project 4 years ago and motivated the community to positively react to it by reminding them of the environmental impacts and of the religious responsibilities we have towards ourselves, our community, our environment, and other creatures.
Did you have a lot of support from the rest of the CIMIC community?
Yes! The community loves what we are doing. Tens of volunteers participated in this initiative out of belief in its importance. Many brothers and sisters frequently come and ask about the results of food waste keen to hear good news. The community accepts our blame when the food waste goes up and feels thrilled when a new low-waste record is achieved. I can see that in their wide smiles when making the announcements. Kids enjoy it the most — being rewarded by a small piece of candy once they proudly give back a white-clean plate with no grain of rice.
What results did you get?
I remember a year before this initiative started and I can tell you that the food waste was a lot! Thanks to God with the initiative, the amount of food waste dropped significantly. In a typical dinner, which hosts around 200 to 400 people including guests, the food waste typically varies between a high of 20 and a low of 4 lbs. High numbers are associated with some ethnic food which many people find spicy or greasy.
The total amount of food served everyday varies between 500 and 800 lb, which means that the percentage of food waste varies between 4% to less than 1%, which I think is satisfactory compared to the average American household food waste of around 30%. Of course, our ultimate goal is to reach the zero-waste milestone, and hopefully we can get there.
Another good result is the recycling of around 10 lbs of plastics (mostly forks and spoons) everyday, which used to go right to the trash.
One aspect which still needs improvement is the non-recyclable plate usage. The plates used are not recyclable due to grease and gravy spots. We have encouraged people to bring their own plates, but it is really not very convenient especially if you are coming straight from work. Years back the masjid provided washable-plastic plates, but the manpower required to wash all plates was high. We are considering some ideas for this issue.
In fact, I think that the major success of this initiative is the educational aspect of it, especially for the kids who are trained and and rewarded for being green. It’s in strengthening this bond between being religious and being green. It’s in the habits that the initiative establishes, and which families practice throughout the year.
Do you have any tips for other faith communities that are interested in reducing waste from communal dinners?
My message for our brothers and sisters in other faith communities is that this is worth trying and is truly rewarding. Remind people about the importance of reducing waste and how it is in the core of our religious responsibility.
Make it fun! At the masjid here we ignite a competition between brothers and sisters by reporting statistics of both groups and sometimes humorously claiming a winning group.
Motivate kids and engage them. Prophet Muhammad once said that if the day of resurrection comes and one of you had a seedling in hand, let him plant it.
So don’t worry about the seedling, just do the right thing and Allah will take care of it.