Going Back to School Becomes a More Appetizing Proposition
College campuses across the country now offer an increasing variety of delicious, well-prepared meals made entirely from plants. Earlier this year, the food-service company Aramark announced that 24% of 100,000 college students surveyed expressed an interest in pure vegetarian ("vegan") meals. 
Aramark is one of three companies that supply a large percentage of the meals served in campus dining halls across the United States. Through their "Just 4U" program, they provided campus chefs with dozens of vegan recipes. According to Aramark representative Doug Warner, "I don't think we understood how popular vegan options were until we sat down to do the research. Twenty-four percent is an impressive number."
The trend also reflects an increased awareness of a number of ingredient, storage and labeling issues that inspires confidence and takes away much of the guess work for vegan students. At many campuses, training chefs and food servers for vegan meals now involves close inspection of ingredient labels and separate storage for vegan products. It is common for utensils to be labeled "for vegan only," to help ensure that a meal will be free from animal products.
Ira Simon, director of food and vending services at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, agrees that the times are changing for students who follow a plant-based diet. "We have a chef who is vegetarian and very knowledgeable about vegan food preparation,” he said. “He is very receptive to hearing from students about how to better meet their needs.”
Vegan options are available for every meal at the 900 campuses serviced by Sodexho, another leading food provider for colleges. The Maryland-based company now carries more than 1,100 vegan offerings in their 6,000-recipe database.
Sodexho’s Bonnie Gordon attests to the growing popularity of vegan options, explaining: "On average, vegetarians make up about 10% of a campus. When we offer of a vegan meal we often see 25% of the students choosing that as their option of the day. They see it as a healthier way of dining, and the selections can be so enticing that people make that choice, whether they are vegan or not."
And the offerings are indeed tempting. Consider a typical menu for Wells College, located in Aurora, NY. During a week in May, the school offered such tantalizing entrees as vegan ravioli, Brazilian black bean stew, Thai seitan and barbecued Portobello mushroom sandwiches.
Linda Adams is a Sodexho dietician and nutritionist at the University of California, Davis. “Within the last academic year,” Adams explains, “the movement has been toward a greater reliance on sustainable food systems, locally-grown produce and socially responsible practices. When I first came here 15 years ago, only one of the four dining rooms offered ‘natural foods.’ Now that platform is offered in every dining room, and it is fully vegan.”
Adams filled us in on some of the latest offerings at UC Davis: “We just added Polynesian rice in grilled pineapple rings, with carrot lemongrass sauce. We make our own seitan, by isolating wheat gluten and poaching it in water or vegetarian broth. We use it for fajitas that we serve with pureed bean or spinach instead of cheese, along with Cuban baked beans and rice.”
While not all schools are equally committed to providing such a rich variety of vegan options, Adams says students can improve the situation by meeting with the staff. “In my experience, dining service workers are very interested in working with students to better meet their needs,” she said. A small investment of your time, along with a copy of the Friends of Animals cookbook, “Dining With Friends: A Guide to North American Vegan Cuisine,” could help turn your campus dining hall into a vegan paradise.
- “Vegan Options More Popular Than Ever on College Campuses; ARAMARK Focuses on Meeting Customer Needs in Honor of Vegan World Day,” available online at www.aramark.com In a July 6 personal interview with Aramark Spokesperson Doug Warner explained that the survey was the result of customer satisfaction research that the company conducts on an ongoing basis.