Vegan Campus Comforts by Suzie Ziegler & Sarah Benraiss

Mean Greens vegan dining hall at University of North Texas
Vegan Campus Comforts By Suzie Ziegler & Sarah Benraiss

The University of Rochester is often referenced as one of the more vegan-friendly campuses in the nation. Peta2 gives the institution an A+ on its ‘Vegan Report Card’ (Peta2). The American Vegan Society has written a glowing review of Rochester’s efforts to support vegan dining options, and commended the school’s Student Association of Vegan and Vegetarian Youth (‘American Vegan’ 31). We’ve seen the separate coolers for almond and soy milk in the dining halls, we’ve seen the vegan section in Danforth Dining Hall, the soups labeled with the little green, the many purchasable packaged solutions in Hillside, etc. We know vegan options exist on campus for its vegan students. Off campus options are only a short distance away: Wegmans, the Public Market, vegan-friendly restaurants like The Red Fern and Owl House. As far as we are aware, no vegan student has dropped dead from malnutrition. It’s therefore reasonable to conclude that maintaining a vegan diet as a student of this University is perfectly doable.

We are not asking the question, can a student be vegan with only campus dining options? They obviously can. Instead, we are questioning the qualitative factors of vegan campus dining. We ask not if it’s possible, but rather how comfortable is it to maintain a vegan diet on campus? Is there a consistent variety of vegan options? Are the options healthy? Is the placement of vegan food widely accessible and convenient (i.e. do many dining locations reliably carry vegan options, or can you only rely on one)? Does the vegan food taste good? As animal product skeptics, but not strict vegans, we were curious about how easy and comfortable it would be to eat vegan from only campus facilities. We hope to gather data from our experience and construct a hypothetical proposal to Dining Services detailing improvements for the whole vegan dining experience, not necessarily just the number of vegan options.

Our method of investigation was the following: we practiced a vegan diet for one week using only campus dining facilities. Thus restaurants, GrubHub, Wegmans, Abundance, and any other off-campus food sources were not on the menu; we ate only what we could purchase on campus with our declining plans. In addition to eating vegan meals we also kept a detailed food log with both pictures and written entries. From this log we were able to see patterns, draw conclusions, and answer some of our initial qualitative questions. Out of coincidence, we happened to have very different dining plans which allowed us to cover an even broader spectrum of the vegan dining experience. Suzie has an all-declining plan and no kitchen access, which meant that all of her meals had to come prepared and ready to eat. Sarah however has a low-declining plan and full access to her own kitchen, which meant that she cooked many of her meals at home with ingredients from Hillside.

SUZIE

My vegan week was for the most part uneventful. To be candid I found that I did not deviate too much from my original diet. I had been vegetarian for the past couple of months, spurred in part by this class, and I had already drastically decreased my dairy intake about a year ago for personal health benefits. Detailed below is my food log. From these photos it is easy to spot some trends. Every coffee cup in the photo is a cappuccino made with almond milk. I often had vegetarian sushi either for brunch or lunch; in fact I had that for all three meals on Thursday. My staple evening or late night snack was some combination of vegetables and hummus, often accompanied by raspberries and peanut butter. Despite these patterns, I found that I was still able to have a varied diet. I would not necessarily conclude that multiple repeats are the fault of a vegan diet, but rather my own preferences and the limitedness of campus dining in general. This is to say that I believe I would repeat meals at least a couple times throughout the week even without the confines of a vegan diet. If I were to extend this project I would do a second week of logging food without intentionally eating vegan to eliminate some of the other variables of campus dining.

The largest palpable difference I noticed was the additional step of reading ingredients in the dining halls and other campus facilities. Before this project I had practiced an ‘ignorance is bliss’ attitude towards foods potentially containing animal products. Although I had stayed away from anything that visibly contained meat, eggs, or dairy, I did not hesitate to grab pancakes or baked goods for brunch on Saturday mornings; if  the animal products were not visible then I acted as though they weren’t there in the first place. Thus for this week I made sure to only eat products that were clearly marked as vegan.

It is curious how the ‘unseen’ animal product is the default. It’s perfectly possible to make vegan pancakes and cookies, yet the baked goods offered in the dining halls always contain eggs and dairy. For someone with an insatiable sweet tooth such as myself, baked goods were an absolute must for my vegan week. Campus does offer some vegan alternatives but they are few and far between (e.g. the vegan cookies far below eye level at Connections, and the vegan tarts on the highest shelf at Hillside). The vegan section of Danforth Dining hall is at the far end of the room, near the back. This system assumes that everyone wants to or is willing to eat animal products and seems to intentionally disperse the alternatives out of reach. Why is this done? As Foer suggests in Eating Animals, a vegetarian [or vegan] meal may look very similar, and indeed be just as satisfying as a meal centered on meat. He describes a vegetarian Thanksgiving meal and asks, “what would happen if there were no turkey? Would the tradition be broken, or injured, if instead of a bird we simply had the sweet potato casserole, homemade rolls, green beans with almonds, cranberry concoctions, yams, buttery mashed potatoes, pumpkin and pecan pies?…It’s not so hard to imagine” (Eating Animals 251). Indeed Foer’s meal (minus the ‘buttery’ potatoes) sounds like it could be a very successful vegan alternative. Why is it then that at the University of Rochester foods stand out as marked vegan products, instead of foods containing animal products? Why are animal products expected and veganism the exception? As I mentioned in our project presentation, the University of North Texas has successfully implemented America’s first all-vegan dining hall, Mean Greens. Just as Foer suggests that a meat-free Thanksgiving is not so hard to imagine, neither is an all-vegan dining hall. More vegan options do not damage the integrity of the mental model of a campus dining facility.

Yet, the very nature of a vegan dining facility further segregates the ideas of a ‘traditional’ meat-eating diet and a vegan diet. It’s a frustrating paradox. I have just questioned the ‘othering’ of vegan food (clear labelling of vegan foods, physically separating them, etc) and at the same time praised an all-vegan dining hall. One might consider a vegan dining facility to be ‘othering’ at the extreme. It’s easy to imagine that if ‘Mean Green’ came to Rochester, it would be known not by its name but as ‘the vegan dining hall.’ Where is the line drawn between promoting awareness and normalization?

I find this to be a particularly nuanced situation at the University of Rochester considering the city’s prominent meat culture. Dinosaur BBQ is labeled as a must-see and local novelties like chicken wings and garbage plates are revered. Our own campus hosts an annual Boar’s Head dinner during which a real pig’s head is presented. Food trucks with garbage plates and burgers arrive at every major weekend event. David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster scrutinizes the default celebration and glorification of meat consumption. It details the (in)famous Maine Lobster Festival in a manner that calls into question the consumption of meat as a celebratory act. Why is it that celebrations revolve around meat? I find it hard to imagine that much cultural and social support would be garnered for such events if they were advertised as vegan. This is not to say that the food trucks that come to campus or the Boar’s Head dinner don’t have vegan options, they do. I am merely drawing attention to the fact that all major campus events are advertised with the promise of meat, not vegetables and grains.

 

SARAH

My “original” diet:

My diet might best be described as pescatarian, but certainly not vegan. I am the type of person that cooks most of my meals and I draw a lot from Mediterranean cuisine as it is the cuisine I grew up with and which is most representative of my French/Moroccan background. This diet, while it can be made vegetarian or even vegan rather easily, traditionally includes a lot of seafood and cheese.

Because I live in Southside, I have access to a kitchen in my dorm room, and do not usually rely on campus foods to sustain myself. I generally buy my groceries from Wegmans, Aldi or Hart’s, and supplement with what I can find at the Public Market and various smaller farmer’s markets when they are in season. Cooking for myself, my average meal is centered around some form of grain (couscous, pasta, rice or bread) and then  lots of fruits and vegetables. I used to eat chicken as well, but I’ve recently stopped purchasing it. However, I consume fish or eggs about 3 times a week, and eat dairy products almost daily (in the form of yogurt and cheese mostly, plus the occasional scoop of ice cream).

Why I did this:

Knowing I would have to select a more expensive, all declining meal plan for the next semester, and lose access to my kitchen now, I felt that a trial run exploration of vegan diet might look like at the University of Rochester would benefit me in more ways than one, Outside of this practical aspect, however, the three biggest factors might have been concerns about my health, my environmental impact and my personal code of ethics.

After learning that I was genetically susceptible to breast cancer earlier in the semester, I started looking into how diet can influence the risk of cancer. Around the same time, I also began taking some medication which negatively influenced my cholesterol levels, a metric which is usually influenced by diet. Both of these factors, it seemed, might benefit from a switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet. A vegan diet in particular would also cut out the intake of growth hormones given to cows which wind up in meat and dairy products, which “have been shown to significantly increase the risk of breast, prostate, and colon cancer in beef consumer” (“Factory Farming and Human Health”).

Another big factor in my decision was the possibility of reducing my environmental impact. The impact of factory farmed animals on climate change is undeniable. According to the Farm Sanctuary website, between 1990 and 2005, “methane emissions from […] cow operations rose {..] 50 percent” (Factory Farming and the Environment”). Methane being a very potent greenhouse gas, I have no illusions about my dairy consumption’s contribution to climate change and the pollution of our air, land and water.

But on some level, I also knew I wanted to explore this from a personal, humanistic perspective, outside of what science told me to be true. This is where the ethics side of my decision came in. When we visited Farm Sanctuary, our tour guide said

something that stuck with me even after we left: “we just want you to live by the values we know you already hold”. Knowing what I know about the horrors of factory farming, it suffices to say that my values do not align with eating factory-farmed meat, though I have found this point easy to ignore in the past. Outside of even my own socio-political ideologies, on a deeply personal level, I knew I couldn’t condone the pain and suffering felt by our factory farmed animals. After spending time with the animals at Farm Sanctuary, petting turkeys, pigs, sheep and goats, I was reminded and perhaps reassured about my stance on this point.

Since the only meat I already ate was that of fish, and we didn’t interact with fish at the farm, I would also like to credit Foer’s Eating Animals with prompting me to confront why I thought fish were okay to eat but a cow might not be. This quote in particular made me realize my hypocrisy in this belief: “although one can realistically expect that at least some percentage of cows and pigs re slaughtered with speed and care, no fish gets a good death. Not a single one. You never have to wonder if the fish on your plate had to suffer. It did” (Foer 193). Perhaps because fish aren’t mammals, or because we are unable to humanize them as we might humanize a land animal, the question of cruelty against fish isn’t as stressed as that against pigs, cows or sheep. Confronting my own biases and recognizing that every fish I have ever eaten has died in suffering solidified my need to truly abide by my personal code of ethics.

How it went:

For me, cutting out all meat and dairy products meant I’d have to start with breakfast. Normally, I’d have either some Greek yogurt with blueberries and some granola, or I’d eat some oatmeal with milk,  bananas and honey. I already drank my coffee black, so that didn’t need to change. To adapt to a vegan diet using only ingredients I could find on campus, I started making instant, water-based oatmeal for breakfast every day, with some Hillside bananas and honey to top it off. At first, I found that I missed the creaminess of milk, but after making some minor adjustments to the cooking times and methods, I could barely tell the difference. It made me wonder why I ever thought milk was a necessary part of oatmeal (of course, this is because dominant discourse praises and pushes for the consumption of dairy in as many meals as possible).

Having lunch on campus was similarly just a minor adjustment. I couldn’t necessarily get all the options I might want, but there was certainly enough for me to live off of. I actually only ate in a dining hall once that week, but I did eat at Cafe 601 twice (the Medical Center Cafeteria, which also accepts declining). Each time, I was able to find or easily adapt ⅓ of the dishes available to me to fit

my vegan diet and I personally didn’t crave any of the non-vegan options. However, it was obvious that a vast majority of the dining options were designed around the consumption of meat. Also, while there was no apparent price difference between dishes with and without meat at the River Campus, I found myself spending a lot more declining than usual at the Medical Center to avoid meat and dairy products. This economic divide seems like it only further reinforces the idea that eating vegan is a luxury which should be paid for accordingly, as it exists outside the meat-eating discourse we are conditioned to.

Cooking lunch and dinner back at my dorm was a little bit more challenging. The variety of produce at Hillside was very limited, so I could really only eat the same 2-3 veggies cooked different ways for most meals. I got by with lots of mushrooms, onions and canned olives, as well as sweet potatoes, strawberries, packaged  lentils and tomatoes. Buying these ingredients at Hillside was a lot more expensive than I would have liked and my declining certainly took a hit, and part of me was a little annoyed knowing I could get a cheaper and higher quality selection of fruits and vegetables at a grocery store or the Public Market.

As a challenge to myself, I also made vegan desserts twice that week, including an apple-based cake and vegan rice pudding, both of which came out delicious. I had to consciously stop myself from adding things like milk and butter to the cake and shift gears a little bit, but the finished product was amazing. Overall, it didn’t feel like I was “sacrificing” anything by eating vegan, but it was only one week, and I wonder if after a month or so I might have found the range of foods offered on campus to be rather repetitive.

What I learned:

One major aspect of my life which changed during this week was the comments which my friends made about my eating habits. Usually, they wouldn’t really say anything about what I’m eating. That week though, it seemed everyone had an opinion. When I read food labels a little more closely than usual to make sure the product I was eating didn’t include milk or eggs, I would be told “why don’t you just eat it? Does it really matter? or “I hate watching you read that thing obsessively… why are you making life more difficult for yourself”. I even had a friend tell me he was gonna eat twice the mozzarella sticks in front of me to see if he could get me to change my mind.

These were examples of social policing in which my friends were, perhaps subconsciously, doing their part to bring me back in line with the existing discourse around meat eating. Their disdain for my attention and care to what I ate was a performance to assure themselves that they were in the right and that my habits were abnormal. Even on a liberal campus such at the University of Rochester, this discourse is so deeply internalized and reinforced daily that minute changes in my behavior became personal offenses to my peers.

I also found that I had to read labels much more closely than usual because there was no real overarching labeling system. In the dining halls at least, each item prepped by the chefs was labeled clearly and consistently. When it came to pre-packaged foods, however, the lack of visible labeling especially when became a real nuisance for me, and I can’t help but feel as though this lack of labeling is intentional. It’s not an accident that the ingredients for these items were so difficult to sift through, rather it is a conscious act which further reinforces the idea that eating meat and dairy products is the norm, and that anyone making a decision not to do so should not be accomodate as it is their choice to make “life more difficult for [them]selves”.

Additionally, if I took anything away from my time in the University of Rochester’s dining halls, it’s that meat was the centerpiece of almost every dish offered. This was in line with the radical feminist-vegetarian theory of Carol Adams, “meat is king. […] Just as it is thought a woman cannot make it on her own, so we think that vegetables cannot make a meal on their own […] Meat is upheld as a powerful, irreplaceable item of food” (Adams 33). To truly cater to the needs of vegetarian and vegan students, a dining facility should not simply be portraying vegan dishes as the same dish everyone else is getting, minus the meat. This narrative may have been what led to the downfall of “Meatless Monday”, as it is phrased in terms of taking something away rather than opening new possibilities. Effort should be put into creating vegan dishes which stand on their own, and are varied, delicious and appealing.

To illustrate this concept, and highlight how our dependence on meat is nothing more than a performance, I actually found myself going back to the first text we read in this class, Things Fall Apart. Compare these two quotes: “Yam, the king of crops” (Achebe 30) versus “Meat is king” ( Adams 33). In Things Fall Apart, we can imagine a world in which meat is not the king. Can we imagine a future for America where the primary discourse is one of veganism and plant-based diets? In a smaller, but not insignificant way, I believe campus dining facilities play a role in changing people’s perceptions of the importance of meat. Even just shifting the way vegan foods are framed and priced on campus could begin the process of normalizing the vegetarian and vegan meals, and push people in a rather subtle way to decrease their consumption of meat and dairy products. Naturally, this will not be enough to radically alter and dismantle the discourse surrounding the average diet in the United States, but it could have a significant impact on the diets of  UofR students.

 

Citations

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2009. Print.

Adams, Carol J. The sexual politics of meat: A feminist-vegetarian critical theory.

“Check out University of Rochester’s Vegan Report Card Grade!” Peta2’s Vegan Report Card. Peta2, n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2017.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York, NY: Little, Brown, 2009. Print.

“Factory Farming and the Environment”. Farm Sanctuary. 2017: n. Pag. Web. 30 Apr. 2017.

“Factory Farming and Human Health”. Farm Sanctuary. 2017: n. Pag. Web. 30 Apr. 2017.

Jaros, Melody. “Quality Vegan Food on University of Rochester Campus.” Quality Vegan Food (n.d.): n. pag. Americanvegan.org. American Vegan, Winter 2015. Web. 21 Apr. 2017                             <http://americanvegan.org/UnivROC.pdf>.

UNT Meal Plan Guy-Mean Greens. YouTube. University of North Texas, 24 Sept. 2013. Web. 2 May 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vd1oCP0pdBM>.

Wallace, David Foster. “Consider the Lobster.” Gourmet Aug. 2004: n. pag. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.