The University of North Texasis opening the country’s first strictly vegan cafeteria this week, according to USA Today. But administrators didn’t create the vegan-friendly option to make astatement about animal welfare or sustainability, but rather to provide more options for a student body whose tastes are growing increasingly diverse, Ken Botts, UNT director of special projects for Dining Services, told the newspaper.
“It wasn’t meant as a comfort for those folks who are going to say, I’m not vegan and I want to eat meat,” Botts said. “[But] it's in alignment with the same thought, that this is a way for us to offer our population variety.”
In fact, the university is also opening another dining hall today serving “Southern comfort” fare: fried chicken and barbecue specialties. Despite the coincidental timing, that cafeteria was“not created to appease non-vegans,” Botts claimed.
Spoken like a true administrator. Never take a stand that might alienate anyone.
Of course, the Vegan Café is winning praise from animal rightsactivists. PETA awarded North Texas a “compassionate campus award,” which is pretty much like an association of fantasy football league owners giving the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition a graphic design award.
Ryan Huling, PETA’s manager of college campaigns, said that Denton, Texas-based North Texas is the first “mainstream university” to offer an all-vegan facility. While the Maharishi University of Management has offered vegetarian and vegan options for quite a while, apparently the Iowa college founded by guru to the stars Maharishi Mahesh Yogi doesn’t quite qualify as mainstream.
“This is certainly the latest example of a growing trend of schools offering a wide variety of vegan samples,” Hulingsaid, “responding to overwhelming student demand for meatless meals.”
C’mon. What’s he going to say? Various surveys confirm that three out of four college students could care less about vegetarian options on campus. Although Aramark, the foodservice operator, told USA Todaythat vegetarian and vegan menu offerings have increased about 15% since 2006, that increase is less about animal welfare and more about young women—PETA’s primary demographic—worrying over calorie counts and fat content and buying into trends such as locally grown foods.
The Mean Greenof North Texas were already recognized forhaving a “healthy” cafeteria and had received awards for developing smaller portion sizes and serving lower calorie foods. The newspaper story also quoted university administrators boasting about their sustainability programs in foodservice, including going trayless and “cutting down on carbon-emitting shipments”—whatever that means, exactly.
But the university continued to hear requests for more healthful food and complaints from vegetarians who felt they had no options available at the school cafeteria, according to USA Today. Even though North Texas already offereda number of vegetarian options, Botts said he could tell “there was an appetite for vegan food” from the popularity of a number of new meatless menu options and from the enthusiasm of many students, faculty and staff for the vegan dining concept.
Notably, Botts said that in conducting research for UNT’s vegan program, he couldn’t find any other all-vegan dining halls. In fact, the previous winner of a PETA award was UCLA, which doesn’t have any of its dining halls devoted to veganism, although the restaurants and cafeteriasoperated by the campus dining services all offersome vegan options. Roger Pigozzi, UCLA’s executive chef for dining services, said that vegan offerings at UCLA have about a 5% to 10% market share.
If I were a meat and poultry purveyor, I wouldn’t worry too much about this so-called breaking news. First of all, being trendy is what going to college is all about. Many of the diehard vegetarians roaming college campuses will turn much more traditional—in food as well as politics—once they hit the adult world of full-time jobs, bills and parenthood.
Not to mention that students don’t always like being told what to eat. As the newspaper story noted, last fall students at Bowdoin College, a liberal arts bastion in Maine protested the observation of “Meatless Mondays”by holding impromptu barbecues outside the cafeteria.
As long as the young and restless comprise the majority of college students, there will always be an attraction to vegetarian diets and vegan food choices. Such fare has been positioned by activists—and reinforced by celebrities—as healthier, more sustainable, ethically superior and a crucial contribution to solving the planet’s most pressing environmental challenges.
But just like the massive amounts of information students struggle to absorb in class, then rarely refer to again once college is over, much of passion for the (alleged) value of vegetarianism tends to follow a similar path once the campus rebels of today enter the real world of adulthood tomorrow.
Vegetarianism, like the campus foodservice administrators admit, is a nice option to have.
As long as it’s not the only one being offered.
Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator