To many students, the quality of dining on campus has seen a downward trend this year, particularly regarding healthy and sustainable eating. With the recent announcement of Aramark’s latest national initiative, however, the chance to change their reputation on campus may be coming.
According to Aramark Executive Chef and Director of Culinary Development Scott Zahren, the issues of wellness and sustainability have been increasingly prevalent issues in the minds of students. Zahren explained, “Based on information gathered from Aramark’s proprietary customer feedback platform and dining surveys, the number of students interested in vegan options has continued to steadily increase over the past several years” (Latest Vegan News, “Aramark Offers New Vegan Options to Over 500 College Campuses,” 08.31.15). In light of such feedback, the Philadelphia-based food supplier has responded by testing out new dining options in many of the 500 college campuses it currently serves.
College diets commonly consist of fast low-protein meals. With this initiative, Aramark is attempting to help students transition to healthier diets by offering more hearty, nutritious vegan meals that are better for students as well as for the environment. Some of the new menu options served on various campuses Aramark supplies now include tofu-potato hash, vegan home-style pancakes, butternut and black bean chili, spiced vegan quinoa and vegan peanut butter cookies (Latest Vegan News). According to Zahren, by adding more protein-rich vegan meal options for breakfast, lunch and dinner, many students may be less inclined to go for the dairy or meat products throughout the day.
Vegan diets have, however, already become increasingly popular in recent years, especially among college students. Though not originally viewed as a legitimate lifestyle choice, vegan diets now boast a substantial amount of support not only from the health-conscious, but from the environmentally-conscious as well. Many agree now that the choice to go vegan is the choice to do one’s part in promoting animal rights and sustainable consumption. Co-President of Vassar Animal Rights Coalition (VARC) Brooke Thomas ’17 explained the environmental impact of the meat industry. She said, “Animal agriculture is responsible for 51% of greenhouse gas emissions while all transportation is only responsible for about 13%. 55% of the water used in the United States is for animal agriculture.”
Thomas went on to cite Kip Andersen’s 2014 documentary “Cowspiracy,” which exposes the alarming extent to which the livestock industry affects the environment. “Although there are many different statistics about this online, Cowspiracy says that it takes 660 gallons of water to produce one hamburger. Livestock covers 45% of the Earth’s total land surface. The concept is quite simple: animals require far greater land, water, and food requirements than plants do and for all of the animals that are raised, many pounds of plant materials are required to feed those animals. Stopping the mass production of animals to be eaten and exploited would require less land and water, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and produce less waste.”
In spite of its rewards, however, one of the biggest issues some face when considering a vegan diet is affordability. While it does provide a more sustainable solution, finding protein replacements and alternative dairy products can be quite pricey. Vice President of Slow Food Sarah King ’16 commented on the cost-effectiveness of vegan diets. She said, “Vegan diets are not very easy to sustain as getting enough protein without meat or dairy is more expensive and sometimes not sustainable locally. There are very little government subsidies to help alternative protein diets. Vegetables and fruit are reasonable but nuts and high protein soy based products can be over-priced and not sustainable.”
Thomas explained, “The cost of being vegan depends greatly on where you live and what kind of food you plan to eat and it certainly is not currently accessible to everyone. There are ways to eat vegan that are inexpensive…Eating inexpensive vegan food has been, in my experience, a matter of replacing the cheap processed non-vegan foods I was used to with a lot of vegetables and grains and not with the expensive processed vegan foods I am tempted to buy for convenience.” As Thomas asserted, many Vassar students do not have the time or resources to sustain a vegan diet outside Dining Service’s current options, so an expansion of those choices would be supportive of students with such dietary restrictions.
A common concern with providing more vegan options as opposed to traditional, meat-based meals is the perception that it would be unmanageably pricey. Senior Director of Campus Dining Maureen King explained, however, that there isn’t anything specific keeping Vassar from expanding on its existing vegan options, and echoed popular support for locally sourced food. King said, “We have partnered with the Poughkeepsie Farm Project as well as 10-12 other local farms located in the Hudson Valley. According to the College’s AASHE report we purchase 24% local and sustainable.”
Other than potentially increasing that percentage, Thomas commented on what else Vassar Dining Services could do in light of their supplier’s movement toward wellness and sustainability. She suggested, “Vassar Dining Services could reduce the amount of animal products they serve in order to make it a more sustainable system. They could leave the cheese off of dishes that don’t need it. They could make vegan pizzas everyday, not just on request. They could replace some of their desserts with equally delicious vegan desserts. They could even stop serving meat on Meatless Mondays (as many other college cafeterias do). I also think it is important to use local and organic vegetables.”
While the options for vegans on campus remain limited and it can often be hard to shop for local food on a tight budget, Vassar Greens member and DivestVC Co-Coordinator Elise Ferguson ’17 maintained that there are still steps to take that can slowly lead to a more sustainable diet. “One way to reduce cost is to order things in bulk or in food cooperatives,” she wrote in an emailed statement. “I live in Ferry Haus and we order vegan food in bulk, which results in our food supply being relatively inexpensive. Some other things that students can do to maintain a sustainable diet are eating locally, eating organically, and reducing food waste as much as possible (and composting whatever is left). Measures could also be taken to discourage students from taking more food than they need/want and producing large amounts of food waste.”
Although is it still unknown whether Aramark will be bringing its new vegan items to Vassar, King reassured students that it is a possibility. “We are always looking for different and new vegan options,” she stated. In the meantime, an increased awareness of student dining habits and their environmental impacts will remain at the heart of Vassar’s efforts towards food sustainability.