I'll be looking at colleges this spring. How do I find a veg-friendly college?
First and foremost, the most important factor in picking a college is finding one that is really a good fit for YOU - a place where you will learn what you need to learn, and a place where you can grow to the greatest extent of fulfillment as possible. That alone is a complicated and challenging task, but it is extremely important.
As a vegetarian, you have something extra to think about as you search for your home for the next four years. It would be hard to stay up for a late-night study session with your stomach running on near-empty, and it would be hard to enjoy your dinner if it was the same exact mystery vegetable casserole that had been served for three nights prior. Colleges vary in their level of vegetarian accommodation, and the college that's the right fit for your vegetarianism will largely depend on you.
I sent out my college applications in the fall of 2000, and it's my hope that schools are significantly more vegetarian-friendly than they were at the time. I was fortunate enough to have a huge asset on my side though: my mother. My mother is a doctor with a specialty in nutrition. I was raised vegetarian - I've never had meat in my life, and I've been a vegan since I was three years old. Because of my mother's education and interest, I was provided with a wealth of nutritional knowledge from a young age, and a constant ally in my food choices. All of this helped when I was looking into colleges, because there were several questions that my mother brought up, that I may not have come up with on my own.
I would say that picking a college for a vegetarian teen basically comes down to three things: 1) the amount of support you already receive for your eating choices, 2) your own knowledge, and 3) the college itself. I don't think I placed as much importance on the vegetarian factor during my college search as I might today. To that end, my advice as follows is a combination of what I did do at the time, and how I would do it better now.
If you already have the full support of your parents for your vegetarianism (or if you come from a vegetarian family), then that's great! You're already a step ahead - simply remind your parents that this is something that you'll need to pay attention to during your college search.
If your parents are not supportive of your choice to be a vegetarian, then it's really important to make sure they get the message that you're being responsible by learning as much as you can so that you can take care of yourself and be healthy. You will also need to let them know that this will be an important part of your college decision because you want to be healthy and responsible (parents really like it when their kids are responsible).
Your Own Knowledge:
If someone else (your parents, another relative, a restaurant, etc.) makes all of your food, then you might want to brush up on your balanced-diet knowledge. Whether or not you have experience in the kitchen, it is likely that at some point during your time at college, you will cook - either for fun, or out of necessity.
If you know how to cook, as well as how to provide for yourself nutritionally, then it might not matter as much where you go for college. If you rely on others for much of your food preparation, then you'll need to make extra sure that the college you choose will provide adequate nourishment for you.
Questions to ask yourself at this point:
The College Itself:
This is the biggie. Long before your applications are in the mail, you will have heard the names of colleges in your area, ones your friends have gone to, or others that you (or your parents) are interested in. How can you find out how vegetarian-friendly these schools are? You can start, even before visiting the campus:
CALL AHEAD. Do your homework - use a university's website to find information about specific departments that might be able to help you. The best time to place calls is during the day on a weekday. This is when offices are most likely to be open (if you call as soon as you get home from school, you should be fine – especially if the school you are interested in is in a time zone to the West of where you live).
Food Services or Dining Services:
Call to speak to someone who knows what food is served - you may even ask to speak to the head of the department. Because of the prevalence of food allergies, many school food service departments are more vigilant than ever about meeting the students' varied dietary needs. Explain which foods you don't eat, and ask what accommodations are made for vegetarians (you could even possibly ask what percentage of students eat vegetarian meals).
There were many changes in the vegetarian food options at my school while I was a student. Most schools have a variety of food stations in the dining hall, and you either pay for a buffet-style all-you-can-eat meal, or you pay a certain price for each item that you have chosen (a la carte). During my freshman year I could always eat from the salad, bar, have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or cheeseless pizza. At dinner there was always a vegetarian entrée, though I was often skeptical of its vegan status. There was a sandwich/wrap station, but I chose not to eat food prepared there because I did not trust that they used separate, clean knives for meat and for vegetables. For breakfast, there was sometimes soymilk. When I spoke to the head of dining services to address the fact that the food wasn't meeting my needs, he offered to purchase special foods for me. The bottom line is: it always helps to ask. When you make your needs known, they are more likely to be met. By the time I was a senior, there was a vegetarian dining room open for dinner.
Which brings us to a second important point to discuss with dining services: meal plan. Different schools have come up with different ways of having students pay for meals. Some schools require all students to be on a meal plan. Others only require students in certain dorms or years. Some schools require all students to be on at least some sort of partial meal plan. Most meal plans have a combination of "meals" and "points" (or "dining dollars," or "flex points" - different schools refer to them by different names). Often this means that if you eat a meal at a main dining hall, you will spend one "meal" from your cache. Points are usually spent at smaller (often fast food, or café style) dining halls, and each item that you buy is worth a different number of points. Usually points carry over from the fall semester to the spring semester, sometimes they carry over from year to year. Unfortunately, at my school they did not, and at the end of my freshman year I ended up bringing home several cases of bottled water (I don't even drink bottled water). It is important to ascertain the structure of the meal plan at a school you are looking into, because if they don't have very many vegetarian options, and you are required to be on a full meal plan, you will have spent a lot of money, and will not have much food.
If food options are meager, it will be important to find out what the dorms are like. If you have a full kitchen, and enjoy the prospect of cooking for yourself, the dining halls won't matter so much. At my school, the freshman dorms had a microwave, stovetop, and sink available in a lounge on each floor. I had a small refrigerator in my room (I ate a lot of guacamole that year). All other dorms had full kitchens. After I graduated, a group of students created a vegetarian co-op on campus - you never know what sorts of opportunities you might discover at the school that you are interested in.
Student Activities Office
Someone from this office could tell you if there is a vegetarian (or animal rights) organization or club. If you would be interested in joining such a club while in college, you could probably speak with a member beforehand, to ask how large the club is, how active it is, what sorts of activities they do, etc. If you intend to only date other vegetarians, then you'll definitely want to make sure you'll be able to find them, especially on a large campus!
Even if you don't expect a vegetarian club to have a major place in your life during college, you may enjoy knowing that there are like-minded individuals, should you change your mind along the way. There was a Vegan and Vegetarian Club at my school - but I never was a part of it (I did, however, buy a really cool tee-shirt they were selling one year, and always smiled when I saw their table at activities fairs).
You're going to play a back-and-forth dance with admissions offices. First, they're out to woo you into applying to their school. Colleges go to great lengths to get a strong applicant pool. Then they pass the baton to you, and you have to impress them back with your application. Once you're accepted, the ball is back in the school's court, and again they will do whatever they can to get you to attend their school. So most of the time, you are the one with the advantage, because they're trying to win you over. You will probably find that the admissions office staff is very accommodating.
So call the admissions office with some more of your questions (really, any that you would have addressed to any of the offices listed above will work there too), and if there are any that they can't answer, ask if you could speak directly with a vegetarian student. You could ask them about things such as: how good the vegetarian food is on campus (this is something that dining services most likely won't tell you!), what (if any) vegetarian restaurants in the area might be available and/or popular amongst students, how well the dining staff responds to student requests, etc.
When you visit:
This will basically be a chance for you to ask some of the same questions you may have already asked over the phone. That may sound redundant, but if I was going to possibly spend four years eating someone's cooking, I'd want to hear reviews from more than one person. Also, pay attention to what they serve you - some schools go all out to impress visiting prospective students, so if you aren't impressed by what they serve you when they're trying to impress you, then you might want to take that into consideration when you think of what they'll serve on a day-to-day basis (I remember a lot of grilled vegetable wraps when I visited different colleges. Personally, I'm not such a big fan of them - they signify to me a lack of the creative vegetarian culinary thinking which I really enjoy).
Check out the dining hall yourself, even if you don't get a chance to eat there. You'll want to see what it's all about, and it will round out the impression you get by speaking with the students. Try to find out what health food stores are available in the area - visit them, and you can see if they carry foods and products that you are used to using.
If you're the kind of person who could be dropped on a desert island covered in carnivores and cows, and manage to live as a vibrant and fulfilled vegetarian, then it might not matter so much where you choose to go to college. For everyone else, I imagine that it will matter to varying degrees. You need to figure out for yourself just how hard you're willing to work. I personally love to cook, but if I were to go through the rigor of college again, I would really love to do it in a place where I could be provided with a variety of tasty and creative options at every meal. I truly enjoy delicious, healthful food, and I love having the opportunity to enjoy such foods with others. (As a side note here, you may also want to make sure that the food at the schools you are interested in is healthful. I grew up on fresh-baked whole wheat bread, and when I went away to college, I was excited to FINALLY be able to eat white bread whenever I wanted. That enthusiasm lasted for about a year, before I decided that I actually liked the whole wheat bread better - and that I really liked the idea of putting healthy foods in my body. College is demanding. If you want to be able to do your best, and be able to enjoy the experience to the fullest, you need to be vigilant about what you fuel your body with - and even if you can't wait for all the white bread in your future, you never know how your thoughts might change in just a few short years.)
Take into consideration the dining services, the food itself, kitchen availability, student comments, vegetarian community, and your own knowledge and agency within your vegetarianism, and create for yourself a full picture of what a school has to offer. Perhaps you're the kind of person who is going to go to a college with a pitiful selection for vegetarians and be an agent for change and improvement - only you can know that. And as I started out by saying - make sure the school is a good fit for you, OVERALL. Vegetarian accommodations may affect your quality of life while you're in college, but it's really important for you to go to the school that will enable you to do what you love overall.
And once you've found your college, and know all about what it has to offer, make sure you let vegetarian friends who are younger than you know all about your school's vegetarian amenities. There's nothing like a little help that turns around and helps another.
by Joanie Terrizzi