“I was quite surprised and disappointed when I started eating in the dining hall to find out that besides salad and pizza daily, there was only one vegetarian option—and it was repeated throughout the week. The dining hall provides its students with chickpea stew, sweet and sour stir fry, or rice and teriyaki vegetables, which gets exhausting when eating it every day for the majority of the year.” —Elizabeth Mattes, a junior at University of Minnesota who identifies as vegetarian for both health and environmental reasons.
Despite the increasing number of students eating fewer animal products, there is often still a dearth of plant-based options on college campuses. But a smattering of universities around the country have made the conscious effort to include more plant-based meals in their daily dining options. According to Unigo, a resource for students searching for scholarships and grants, the University of California at San Diego offers vegan options at every school restaurant, while the University of North Texas created an entirely plant-based cafeteria in 2014. These two universities are prime examples of administrators recognizing the need to offer more nutritious meals for students interested in a more environmentally sustainable and humane diet.
According to a research article from Bethel College School of Nursing, college-aged students are in the stage of their life where they are forming life-long habits, including the food choices they make, the amount of exercise they get, and the moral decisions they make each day. The article states that when choosing what to eat between a healthier option and a less-nutritious alternative, the choice they make is one that often stays with them for the rest of their lives.
There are a number of resources available to students looking to eat more plant-based at their university. From public research to personal anecdotes, there are a variety of materials available both in-person at colleges and on the internet. In 2013, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released a Vegan Report Card where they graded thousands of colleges and universities in their effort to provide more plant-based options. Since the release of this resource, the number of schools with an A grade has more than tripled, jumping from just 189 schools scoring an A to now 709 universities with substantial plant-based options for students.
Indiana University Bloomington, a public research university with over 40,000 students on campus, received an A rating on PETA’s Vegan Report Card. As a current student at Indiana University (IU), I can attest to the presence of vegetarian and vegan options in IU’s dining halls. IU has started the process for more nutritious and sustainable alternatives to a factory-farm-based diet, but there is always a need for more plant-based options on college campuses. There is a daily struggle at many schools, especially for freshmen living in dorms and eating at dining halls, to find a wide variety of plant-based options.
Erica Levinson, a second-year student at Kansas State University who is also vegetarian, experienced a drastic change in her health due to the dining options available in her school’s cafeteria. “I felt that my options were so limited, and knew that I was lacking the nutrition from [dining services]. So even though I had the highest meal plan, I ended up buying myself groceries every week in order to sustain myself. Before I changed my eating habits, which resulted in me spending a lot more money on top of the cost of my meal plan, I developed an iron deficiency from the year I ate unhealthy food at my dining hall.”
Levinson’s long-term health was affected by her college’s decision to offer fewer plant-based options. Many students across the United States who are living on their college campus face this same issue, leading them to explore activism in order to create change for themselves and their fellow classmates.
There are many avenues for students who believe their campus is not as vegetarian- and vegan-friendly as needed to take action. According to ChooseVeg.com, a website created by the nonprofit Mercy for Animals, students can start a petition to demonstrate to their school’s administration the number of students on campus who would benefit from more plant-based options on their menus. Students can also meet with their school’s dining services to help create more plant-centered recipes for all students regardless of their diet, starting with bringing samples of plant-based products to their meeting.
At FFAC, students in the Advocacy Institute are provided with the tools, knowledge, and support they need to successfully implement institutional campaigns on their respective college campuses that result in more plant-based meals being offered. By working with aligned organizations like Greener by Default and Balanced, they have successfully received commitments from their universities, making it much easier for students on those campuses to find a nutritious, exciting, and sustainable plant-based meal. In a recent win, Advocacy Institute students in New York City convinced the Student Council for New York University’s College of Arts and Sciences to incorporate a plant-based food initiative as part of their sustainability commitments. The students are in the process of signing on NYU's Environmental Studies Department and the Office of Sustainability to a sustainable food pledge, which makes the default meal options plant-based and increases accessibility to plant-based food.
Another alternative in order for students to take control of their health is for them to meet with nutritionists on campus. Many colleges provide nutritionists and dieticians for consultation with their students. These experts can increase students’ knowledge about appropriate nourishment for their bodies. For instance, Indiana University provides one free nutritionist counseling session per semester, while the University of Minnesota has a Nutrition Services office on their Twin Cities campus, and Kansas State University has free, individualized nutrition counseling.
As a leader in one of my university’s environmental student organizations, I went through a tedious process to add more environmentally-conscious products in my campus dining halls and school-run convenience stores. I worked with dieticians, chefs, and administration staff in search of healthier and more enjoyable products for students. Although I was not able to introduce as many new options as I would have liked, I certainly increased awareness and created momentum around this issue.
The United States’ entire food system is heavily reliant on products from factory farms, such as beef, chicken, and dairy products. However, in the last few decades, numerous environmental groups have devised plans to reduce carbon emissions on both an individual and global level through our food system. Such proposals have expanded to include outreach to college campuses, relying on students to propel their movement forward into future generations. The education that current students actively involved in the animal rights and environmental sustainability movements provide to other undergraduate and graduate students is vital, as it allows for more people to learn about and help support the mission of many environmental and animal-related groups.
For students looking to lead institutional campaigns on their campus and learning more about these issues, FFAC’s Advocacy Institute is an incredible opportunity to gain the skills and connections necessary to create real, lasting change.
Levinson’s personal experience allowed her to gather a new worldview about colleges’ dining options because there will always be college students that feel they don’t have enough options that fit their dietary needs. She finds it important for “students to have the option for an inclusive meal plan, especially if they are living in the dorms, because they don't have a proper kitchen setup to cook for themselves. So a comprehensive dining plan is a necessity in that dorm experience, especially if living in dorms is required by the school.”
Mattes, too, recognizes the importance of healthy food as fuel for a person’s body and believes that each person is entitled to food that serves them and their diet, especially when opting into a meal plan at a university. “I think inclusivity within dining is important because… by having such limited options, [their university] is taking away niche groups of students from having the nutrition they need. If my school offered more comprehensive and variable options for students, they could improve the nutrition of students with specific dietary needs.”
Stephanie Levitt is a rising junior at Indiana University majoring in Nonprofit Management and Leadership. After her participation as a College Advocate in the Advocacy Institute, she looks forward to continuing her advocacy work to end factory farming.