ALBANY, N.Y – In the prepackaged, boxed and canned world of American food banks, fresh meat is a luxury. But what to do when two and a half tons come at once?
Take it, Amy Gabala says happily. Her Washington, D.C.-area Manna Food Center is used to generous holiday giving. But the annual Islamic feast of sacrifice, Eid al-Adha, on Tuesday brought a gift she's never seen: "such an extraordinary amount of meat."
Increasingly, American food banks are being presented with chunks of freshly slaughtered goat, lamb and cow as Muslims bring a key religious obligation to a wider audience.
Eid, which comes at the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca, celebrates the storied test of Ibrahim, or Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his own son for God. He was allowed to sacrifice a sheep instead.
Each Muslim family is encouraged to sacrifice an animal and split it in three — one-third for the needy, one-third for friends and family and one-third for themselves.
At Eid, Muslims often contract with local farms and have the animals killed at local halal, or religiously acceptable, slaughterhouses.
Ahmed Kobeisy, the director of the Islamic Center of the Capital District in Albany, N.Y., says the center this year is encouraging members to donate meat to non-Muslims and food banks as well. "The poor includes all the poor," Kobeisy says.
Zahid Bukhari with the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University says a growing number of donations in the U.S. go not just to needy Muslims, but to the community at large. The reason, American Muslims say, is simple.
"Especially after 9-11, we need to be a more obvious part of society," says Irma Hafeez, the general secretary for the Montgomery County Muslim Council in Maryland. The group first gave 700 pounds of meat to the Manna Food Center last year. This week, it hoped to donate 5,000 pounds.
The California-based Islamic Relief USA is introducing a pilot project this Eid in Detroit, where meat will be distributed to the needy community at large, said media manager Arif Shaikh.
The Queens-based Islamic Circle of New York planned to donate hundreds of pounds of meat to local food banks.
In the Los Angeles area, the Shura Council of Southern California, a collection of about 70 local mosques, expected to donate "tens of thousands of pounds" of meat to local food banks, said executive director Shakeel Syed.
When the practice first started, the council encountered some unusual reactions. Syed says some wanted to know if the meat was being dumped because it was rotten.
"There was just a lack of knowledge at the beginning," Syed said. "I think canned food is the norm."
In past years, donor enthusiasm also ran so high among recent Muslim immigrants that the council sent out advisories telling people not to simply hand out bags of fresh meat to needy strangers.
"Muslims are beginning to recognize if you give a pound of meat to someone on the street, there's not much they can do with it," Syed says.
The advisories have stopped, he says. But "there are always some extra-excited people."