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The Rise Of Vegan Food At Universities

A blog by Laura Buchenlicht

A group of white, Asian, and black college students (male and female) wearing graduation garb and throwing their hats into the air, laughing

I still remember how it was in the university canteens during the 2000s and early 2010s – there were no vegan meals at all. I had not yet transitioned from vegetarianism to veganism at that point, but even finding a vegetarian meal was hard. Usually there only was one, and most of the time I opted for salad.

Things are very different now. Already in 2018, 66% of US university canteens offered vegan food options. A map of these options curated by PETA2 gives you a current overview, along with the details of every university.

Things are similar in Europe – we got the same two thirds in German universities in 2023; and in 2021, 94% of French universities offered at least one vegan meal.

Of great interest is a 2023 study that showed that 81% of students stuck with the vegan meals, when they were presented as the default (with the option to request non-vegan food).

This proves that younger people have much less prejudices about vegan food in general and that the student population is most likely to be supportive of plant-based food.

In 2024, the students of over twenty UK universities demanded a complete shift to 100% vegan food at universities. The campaign behind the call, Plant-based Universities, has so far achieved the serving of completely vegan meals at eleven universities in the UK, among them Cambridge, Stirling, and three London universities.

Their open letter to all universities states:

Most universities have declared a climate emergency, with many taking steps such as fossil fuel divestment. [Students] deserve to know that their universities are actively working to create a future for them to graduate into.

One of the signers of the letter, oceanographer and TV presenter Helen Czerski, commented:

Whenever I’ve organised a university event recently I’ve chosen plant-based or vegetarian catering without mentioning it, and I’ve only ever had compliments about the food, never complaints about what’s not there. It isn’t nearly as scary as many people think.

Universities have enormous cultural significance and power, influencing larger society, which adds importance to the food they are serving. And it’s just another example of cognitive dissonance that the places where our knowledge about the climate crisis comes from in the first place, continue to support the meat/dairy and fishing industries, which are one of the leading causes for that crisis.

A massive 2018 study on agriculture came to the conclusion that the single, biggest step any individual can take to reduce their environmental impact on the planet, is a vegan diet.

If we were to get rid of animal agriculture completely, we’d see a reduction of 75% of global farmland – amounting to an area as big as the USA, EU, China, and Australia, put together!

And we could still feed the world, so that this area could be returned to nature. A necessary step, as animal agriculture is also the leading cause of the current wildlife mass extinction.

Another recent win is the pilot study at two US universities – as part of Veganuary, the Baldwin Wallace University and University of Wisconsin, Steven’s Point, received a training in vegan food preparation and replaced just one meat-containing meal with a vegan one – this alone lead them to save 1,907 pounds of CO2 equivalent emissions.

An accompanying survey about the study revealed that a 100% of the BWU expressed interest in taking part in Veganuary next year, and students from UW-SP would like to see the offered vegan options on the menu again.

How do ethical vegans experience this process? In a 2022 article, College student Nic rightly pointed out that sadly schools are still very hostile places to be vegan or vegetarian in.

Things are slightly different in college, with more vegan options available in the canteen. However, there is still one important aspect missing: the promotion of the benefits of veganism, and education about the negative impacts of meat and dairy on all levels.

While the climate impact and sustainability are important motivators for institutions to consider switching to a plant-based menu, education about the ethical reasons for veganism needs to be added to that, as well as the enormous health benefits of a vegan diet.

After all, just eating a plant-based meal at the canteen because it’s offered, is unlikely to turn people into vegans, without added information. As Nic put it:

I feel that the most important place to start successfully transforming the way young people view veganism, is an educational reform. Students must be taught about the brutal and disgusting nature of factory farms, the inhumane dairy farms, and the shocking amount of suffering the egg industry causes.

I believe that the most effective way for true systematic change is to target the source of the ignorance and misinformation: an inadequate schooling curriculum.

Nevertheless, the constantly growing pressure of student activists on universities to go plant-based and the consequent successes, are a ground for hope, and are in line with similar developments in other sectors of society.

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