By Shelby Jackson, VRG Intern
When I was a freshman at Dartmouth, only one dining hall had somewhat consistent vegan options; the others had salad and occasional veggie chili. The one small dining hall that proved to be the most vegan-friendly had inconvenient hours, was closed on weekends, and was mainly a lunchtime destination. College students’ schedules are often ridiculously busy and socializing at meal times becomes just as important as the actual food. This is especially true when you are in the process of making friends at a new school. My first year, I was restricted to one dining location where nobody wanted to eat. On Fridays I had to stock up on premade meals only offered one weekday at the one vegan-friendly dining hall, and this meant I had to eat those meals alone in my room lest I felt awkward bringing them into other dining halls. Though I could eat a salad at dinner and be accompanied by friends, it was just not feasible to do everyday. At that time I was dedicated to running, and required plenty of whole grains to keep me feeling satisfied. I was very upset about the dining options and the fact that I, all too often, had to eat alone.
If you are experiencing difficulties obtaining proper vegan foods at your college, the first step is to arrange a meeting with someone in dining services by either walking into their office or sending an email to set up an appointment. According to Eitan Fischer, a vegan and rising senior at Yale, developing personal relationships with individual dining hall managers is crucial. Victor Galli, a recent Penn graduate, also stresses the importance of developing an ongoing relationship with dining services, one characterized by a “spirit of collaboration.” When meeting with your dining services administrator for the first time, be aware that kindness is advantageous, and that it will help you if this individual is on your side. Depending on how veg-friendly your college already is, you may need to define veganism, and suggest the implementation of a labeling system to make vegan options more accessible. Some college dining services have a particular symbol they label each vegan entrée with, others use color-coded serving utensils, and some include entirely vegan dining stations.
Eitan recommends offering to make constructive suggestions for improving the options, and to request meetings with high-up dining hall administrators. You may be up against administrators who are reluctant to change, and who believe vegetarian options will not be well received. If you find your dining hall administrators to be impervious, you will need to cast a wide net. Join forces with your school’s animal rights or vegetarian club; you may even find the environmental club is interested. Eitan suggests gathering petitions, getting the newspaper to cover the issue, and, depending on the way your institution works, getting the student government to pass a resolution in support.
The Penn Vegan Society sought a relationship with dining services through which each could be a resource to the other. According to Victor, this sort of engagement made dinging services more responsive and eager to help. Victor states, “You must discuss the business elements of implementing vegan options in order to get dining services to really listen.” When going into a meeting, it is important to reinforce common objective values: “You want to help the dining service make money by providing more and better plant-based options for students.”
Penn’s Vegan Society provided Penn dining services with market research and product recommendations. To support his hypothesis that omnivores who eat mostly plant-based foods, “consume the overwhelming majority of vegan products on campus,” Victor provided the article, ‘Flexitarians’ Driving Global Move Away from Meat Consumption: Study. By providing his dining services with research-backed evidence, Victor successfully illustrated the growing demand for vegan food. Victor also cited the VRG’s press release, How Many Adults Are Vegan in the U.S.?, to show Penn dining services that there are more self-described vegans than there are vegetarians, and to perhaps point their attention to the benefits of providing a variety of vegan options rather than just vegetarian. Another article presented by Victor, 5 Interesting Facts About Plant-Based Food Choices, based on the VRG’s Sugar, Vegan Deli Slices, Whole Grains, Meat Genes – What Will Vegans and Vegetarians Eat? VRG Asks in a New National Harris Poll, showcased rising trends among those eating vegan dishes, including the desire to eat more leafy greens as opposed to processed vegan meats, as well as the desire to have more dishes based on grains and beans. When Victor meets with Penn’s dining services, he provides a printed “Market Research Summary,” highlighting the main points of the research he is drawing from.
Due to the work done by Penn’s Vegan Society, Penn is in the process of offering a vegan station in each of its dining halls.
In convincing Dartmouth dining services to provide better options, I found it effective to point out the implications the lack of options had on my Dartmouth experience, and how I felt as if my nutritional requirements were not being properly met. To my surprise, those working in Dartmouth’s dining services were exceedingly kind and dedicated to doing whatever possible to bring about greater student satisfaction. Luckily for me, Dartmouth had major dining renovations – including an entirely vegetarian station, “The Herbivore,” – already in the works. Like Victor, I provided product and recipe recommendations packaged in a 15-page vegan food guide. When “The Herbivore” was first launched, it was far from perfect, and would oftentimes fail to offer vegan entreés. With my continued involvement with the dining services administrators, the options have improved significantly: textured vegetable protein Sloppy Joes, vegan ribs, vegetable Pad Thai, and textured vegetable protein tacos, to name a few. Another recent improvement has been the permanent addition of faux chicken and beef at the sandwich bar. The vegan dining options, according to dining services workers, become so popular that they had to increase supply orders to satisfy growing demands.
DAWG, the Dartmouth Animal Welfare Group, hosted a conversation dinner with the assistant director of Dartmouth’s dining services. This was an extremely productive event: multiple perspectives were able to be voiced, the dining director met a good number of vegetarians interested in dining improvements, and we became better educated about the constraints faced by dining services to provide certain options. Though Dartmouth’s vegan options have improved tremendously throughout my three years as an undergraduate, I plan to continue my involvement with its progression during my senior year, as there are definite improvements that have still not been made. Advocating for better vegan options is a process, one that hinges on continuous, appropriately-placed efforts.
Vegan options in college are more important than you might think. As a freshman, I tried to make do with the meager offerings, but soon realized Dartmouth’s lack of vegan options was more detrimental than I initially understood. There were students I met who used to be vegan, or wanted to be, but felt as if they could not do it healthily at Dartmouth. Dartmouth’s lack of options conveyed veganism as unsatisfying and difficult to maintain. Furthermore, college gives way to freedom and exploration; many find it a convenient time to experiment with vegetarianism. Ensuring great tasting vegan options are available at college is more important than satisfying the requirements of current vegans; it is about offering appealing foods that will invite others to enjoy more sustainable, compassionate food choices, and hopefully, offering the kinds of foods that cast an accurate representation of veganism, so those interested will feel more inclined to adopt the diet. The process of getting your dining hall to implement proper vegan options may seem daunting, but with persistence, you will savor the results. The fruits of your efforts will do more than please your own taste buds. You will help guarantee that other vegans – as well as future vegans – enjoy their time at college; you will increase the amount of plant-based foods consumed in your dining hall; and you will be opening the door, extending a warm welcome to the many potential vegetarians accepted to your college, year after year.