Campus vegans making their voices heard

by Fran Silverman

In a busy dining hall at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Jolene Leuchten, 19, was camped out at a table with four friends, tucking into noodles with peanut sauce. She had waited online quite a while for her lunch. That’s because that pasta is popular with all the students at Wesleyan and lines for the meal snaked around the cafeteria.

Leuchten and her friends were enjoying not only the peanut noodles that day, but an array of vegan options—steamed broccoli and wild rice salad were also being served, as was steamed quinoa, French lentils, marinated locally-sourced tofu, and roasted red beets, which were side dishes at other food stations.

Like many freshmen, Leuchten had chosen her college carefully, and one important criterion was whether plant-based entrees would be plentiful on campus.

“I knew Wesleyan had vegan options every single day and lots of them,’’ she said. “In fact, a lot of people find it easier being vegan at school rather than home.”

Sophia Korostoff-Larsson, 19, agreed. She said she had been considering becoming vegan for a while but when she arrived at Wesleyan, she made the commitment because vegan options were so available.

The students said they found the campus culture very supportive.

“I feel like at Wesleyan it’s so common to be vegan. If you sit down at any table at lunch, there’s bound to be a vegan,’’ said Leuchten. 

Every other Tuesday, the entire dining hall offers only meatless options, a request by vegan and vegetarian students. And while Veg Out Tuesdays met with some pushback from some students—including many athletes—other students are gravitating toward the plant-based meals.

And student groups are trying to spread the word about veganism. The campus group Veg Out sponsored a sign out front of the dining hall that describes in detail where to find protein in a plethora of plantbased foods. The campus dining service, Bon Appetit, a food company dedicated to locally-grown plantbased meals that services Wesleyan, also held an information session on the social and environmental impact of food production and the sources of Wesleyan’s food, some of which comes from campus gardens.

INCREASING DEMAND

Chef Stephanie Zinowski, a vegan, has been at Wesleyan for 15 years. She said in that time, she’s had to double her orders from vegan-based ingredients to keep up with demand. When Wesleyan hired her to cook vegan meals, she said, the administration thought she was going to need to cook for just a handful of students to keep them happy. Zinowski, who became a vegan almost 40 years ago, said so much has changed since then, when the only options for vegan on-campus meals were peanut butter and jelly and the salad bar.

Now cultural awareness, an ever-increasing array of vegan ingredients and increasing demand by students has changed college dining halls.

“Forty years ago, it was, here is your one option for lunch, eat it or don’t,’’ said Zinowski. “Things have changed so much since I became vegan.”

There’s no doubt colleges have been paying more attention to their dining halls and food options as they compete with each other for students.

Just four years ago, only 28 percent, or 225, of 1,500 four-year colleges and universities surveyed in the U.S. served vegan menu items. Now 62 percent—960—serve vegan food, according to a recent survey.

Maisie Ganzler, chief strategy and brand officer for Bon Appetit, which services 75 colleges nationwide, said so many students are eating less meat that campuses have to respond with better, more attractive vegan and vegetarian meals. Six percent of U.S. residents identify as vegan, up from one percent in 2014, according to a Top Trends in Prepared Foods 2017 report.

“In general, chefs are more open to concentrating on non-meat dishes as being the center of the plate, as being something that can be a great outlet for culinary creativity and skills,’’ said Ganzler.

Bon Appetit supports a farm-to-fork program and requires its dining halls to locally source a percentage of its foods. Chefs share recipes and they do not have to follow a corporate menu. Eric Pecherkiewicz, a registered dietitian at Oberlin, said the college has been exploring vegan meals from a variety of cultures and countries. Students, he said, keep the dining staff on their toes, telling the vegan chefs what they want more or less of during meals.

“We have a lot of feedback mechanisms,’’ said Pecherkiewicz. “A lot of times they will tell us things we don’t think about, like can we get a vegan cream cheese alternative.”

At MIT, chef Brian P. McCarthy knows intrinsically what vegans want because he is one. He has experienced his own struggles of trying to find meals at a company or college that had meager vegan options. At college campuses, where vegans are paying the same amount as meat eaters for their food service, it’s a question of fairness, he noted.

“My first year at MIT I put in a soy milk dispenser. I knew as a vegan that was a magical thing because now you can have cereal. Now students are asking for the soy milk dispensers at other dining halls on campus,’’ said McCarthy, who joined the cooking staff at MIT five years ago.

“I started buying vegan burgers instead of vegetarian burgers and all vegan bread and Hampton Creek mayonnaise if I make potato salad.”

Public colleges and universities are also making vegan options more available. At Salisbury University in Maryland, which contracts with Sysco for its dining service, Plato’s Plate, which opened three years ago, is a popular dining station in the main cafeteria.

“In years past, there was less participation and less options to offer students and students would eat less of the vegan entrees. Now we don’t have any leftovers,’’ said Susah Noah, assistant director of Salisbury’s dining services.

The dining hall has also instituted meatless Mondays. “Students are very conscious about what they are putting in their bodies,’’ said Noah. “The need for (vegan food) is going to increase. I think this is going to become the norm.”

LAGGING BEHIND 

While many colleges and universities are increasing vegan options, others are still lagging behind.

Only 135 campuses of the 1,500 surveyed in the recent study have entirely vegan dining stations. Harvard offers vegetarian options at all meals but not always vegan options, said sophomore Joseph Winters, who is a member of VEGITAS, an undergraduate vegan group on campus.

This despite the fact that students are required to pay for a mandatory dining room plan, which costs upwards of $6,000.

“Harvard definitely still has a lot more work to do,’’ said Winters. (Harvard did not respond to a request for comment by Action Line.)

But students like Winters who attend colleges that aren’t as plant forward as others are still working to change the food culture on campus and have figured out ways to sustain their preferred lifestyle. Winters opted to live in a co-op that is not part of the Harvard meal program so he can cook vegan meals.

The Harvard’s Vegan Society hosted an Ivy League Vegan Conference and VEGITAS, the undergraduate group, has held sampling events on campus and distributes flyers about vegan restaurants nearby, hoping to raise awareness and educate students.

“Universities are not change makers, it’s the culture and what people will demand of their universities,’’ said Winters.

VEGAN FORWARD

Students whose first-choice colleges don’t have great plant-based entrees can start teaming up with animal rights, environmental and food groups on campus and request meetings with dining staff. At the meetings they can discuss the need for more vegan options, present specific recipes and offer a list of condiments and non-dairy alternatives the dining service can purchase.

“My advice to students is to approach campus chefs in a friendly and collaborative manner and ask how they can support them in increasing vegan options,’’ said Ganzler of Bon Appetit.

“Start with the assumption that the chef wants to serve food that customers like and they need information.” McCarthy, of MIT, said students must keep up the pressure. Vegans may have the reputation of being vocal about their diets but students need to do more. “They think, I don’t want to be that person, but really, be that person. Speak up,’’ said McCarthy.

“Vegan students pay the same amount of money and deserve a good meal.”