Students Navigate Misconceptions and Challenges of Veganism

The college's dining halls offer a wider array of vegan options this year than ever before.

The college's dining halls offer a wider array of vegan options this year than ever before.

By ELIZABETH ZHOU

The word “veganism” has the power to elicit eye-rolls, approving nods, or looks of utter confusion. Some view the vegan lifestyle as a pretentious fad, an overly ambitious and misguided attempt to save the world. Others admire the morality of it all, but consider the elimination of animal products from one’s diet to be an impossible undertaking, particularly in light of the college’s limited dining hall options.

Those who identify as vegan on this campus, however, show that this lifestyle endeavor is perhaps not as difficult, irrelevant or inaccessible as one might think.

People arrive at veganism from a variety of entry points. Some are motivated largely by ethical reasons, citing the mistreatment of animals and humans in the creation of non-vegan products. Others are driven primarily by environmental or personal health concerns. Most, if not all, vegans recognize the multiplicity of factors that underlie the significance of their dietary choices.

“The mistreatment of animals is not something I want to be part of at all,” said Finne Murphy ’19, who became vegan five years ago with the encouragement of her mother. “And the meat industry as a whole is really damaging in a lot of different ways. And then it’s just not very good for you health-wise.”

In the context of human and animal rights, veganism can be understood as a form of social justice.

“I kind of felt like I was a hypocrite by saying that I don’t support institutionalized racism and poor treatment of minorities if I continue to support industries that systematically do that, especially with dairy farms,” said Eva Bod ’20, who became vegan this past summer. “If I draw a line at human rights, what about animal rights? If I don’t believe one human life is worth more or less than another human life, how can I do that about species?”

Lee Garcia Jimenez ’19 echoed this sentiment.

“For me, veganism is about fighting oppression,” Garcia Jimenez said. “When people typically fight against oppression, they fight on behalf of themselves. If you’re queer, you express to people to stop homophobia, and I recognize that allies exist, but you don’t find as many straight people actively engaging in rhetoric about why ending homophobia is important, just like you don’t get as many men talking about the importance of ending the patriarchy. But with veganism, people are advocating explicitly for victims that are not them and that are not people they are talking to.”

Simon Willig ’18 sees veganism as a means of acting on his knowledge as Environmental Policy major.

“A vegan diet is a manifestation of me knowing that 99 percent, or 99.999 percent, of the animal products out there, I really don’t agree with how they’re raised and how they’re impacting the environment,” Willig said. “Your ideas and your practices should evolve over time with what you learn. I don’t know that I’m going to be vegan for the rest of my life. It’s just the best manifestation of my current ideas and how I understand these issues, so I would consider myself always trying to be open-minded about these things.”

The continuous and persistent inquiry that guides veganism lends itself to a range of interpretations of what, exactly, a vegan lifestyle looks like. Students expressed that there is not a right or wrong way to be vegan; rather, one’s ability to make this decision for themselves is contingent on their life context and the resources available to them.

For instance, Ami Furgang ’20, who became vegan two years after discovering that they were allergic to dairy, calls themselves a “free-gan.”

“My personal interpretation of what that means for me is I’ll eat anything as long as I personally judge that it’ll go to waste if I don’t eat it,” they explained, adding that, unlike some vegans, they do consume honey and gelatin.

Others also acknowledged the difficulty of abiding by a “perfect” vegan lifestyle.

“I feel like I’ve been vegan in my ethics the whole time. It’s just my efforts have gone off and on,” said Garcia Jimenez, who began practicing veganism five years ago.

“I am not a perfect vegan,” Bod added. “First of all, it takes a lot of privilege to make that decision. You have to have resources to be educated about it. You have to have the privilege to afford decent eating and a decent diet in the first place. I think implementing it is not just about a diet, it’s a lifestyle. Which sounds awful because that’s one of those cheesy one-liners, but do I think it’s ethical to buy from stores that use child labor to make clothes? Of course not, no. But also I can’t afford handmade fine Italian clothing in my entire wardrobe. So to that extent, when it comes to practicing that lifestyle it has to do with choices and lines, and it just depends on where you draw those lines.”

Willig echoed this idea, pointing out the inapplicability of veganism in certain cultural contexts.

“I think people get confused about what exactly I mean by veganism,” he said. “People think I think everyone in the world should be vegan. I obviously understand that people in developing countries who rely on animal agriculture for their livelihood need that. But I think that anybody who can should reduce their consumption of conventionally raised animal products.”

For many, the ability to practice veganism is hindered by social stigma and a lack of structural support for this lifestyle choice. Many struggle with the sparse number of vegan-friendly options at the dining halls, a problem that could be remedied by offering cheese and butter as sides to pasta and vegetable dishes, rather than making dairy products an inherent part of the meal.

“For lunch and dinner, it can really be a hit or miss. Because you can go and there can be three vegan sides and they’re tasty, or the vegetables don’t have butter, and that’s a great day,” Garcia Jimenez said. “But then you can go and there’s one vegan option and it’s something that I happen to not like, and I have to make my own food, and sometimes you just get tired of eating sandwiches.”

“I find every day I each pretty much the same thing, which is pasta and rice, apples and peanut butter, and whatever vegetables they have,” Murphy said. She expressed enthusiasm for the newly introduced lemon sorbet and coconut milk ice cream in the dining halls, adding, “For the past two years I’ve never had any dessert, but this year has been better.”

Despite systemic challenges to following a nutritious and varied vegan diet, people expressed gratitude toward the dining hall staff for their willingness and ability to accommodate for vegan dietary needs when requested. For instance, students can ask for eggplant parm (a vegan dish with a dairy-free cheese substitute) when chicken parm is offered on certain evenings.

“I never felt like I was inconveniencing the dining hall staff by asking for vegan alternatives,” Bod said. “Within the limited choices that the dining hall offers, I still feel welcomed as a vegan.”

As the ethical, environmental, and health-related implications of veganism have become more widely understood and adopted by the student body, demand for vegan options has increased. As a result, dairy-free fridges, which offer a variety of vegan-friendly milks, cheeses, yogurts, butter, ice cream, and cheesecakes, became an installment in the dining halls this year.

Dan Detora, director of food services, notes that the dining services budget, combined with the limited size and layout of the college’s dining halls, presents challenges in serving the entire student body.

“When it comes down to it, we still need to accommodate the needs of all students within our budgetary requirements,” Detora said. “Some vegan items can certainly be pricey. However, so can the grass-fed and grass-finished beef we serve. So in the end it balances out fairly well.”

If the impassioned spirit and well-informed arguments of those who identify as vegan have anything to show, it is that the choice to avoid animal products is far more than just a trend. Veganism is a lifestyle, an often challenging and misunderstood one whose relevance spans across the realms of morality, environmentalism, and personal health. To engage in this practice is to recognize the ways in which our capitalist food systems have fundamentally failed us and our planet.

“I’m by no means a perfect vegan. I think no one is, and I struggled immensely in the past with maintaining a vegan lifestyle,” Garcia Jimenez said. “But it’s because we’re all socialized into being accepting of the cruelty that we pay for. And me trying to get other people to go vegan isn’t about calling them a bad person. It’s about sharing information that, if we all were raised with, we would live our lives very differently. But because we’ve become indoctrinated to carnism, we want to maintain that. And I wish people could view vegan activism as re-socializing as opposed to name-calling.”

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1 Comment

One Response to “Students Navigate Misconceptions and Challenges of Veganism”

  1. Simon Willig on October 26th, 2017 11:16 am

    Thanks for the feature, Elizabeth!

    I am happy to know that more and more people are becoming aware of the inarguably immense contributions of animal agriculture and especially ruminants on the use of water and land, and their contribution to pollution and climate change (near or at the top between different sectors).

    Of course the moral / ethical aspects are super important too (including environmentalism, because it is in part a moral argument to care about the health of non-human systems, but also much of it is self-preservation too).

    I really appreciate reading people’s different perspectives on the issue and their different approaches. I think most of us agree (though there are certainly interesting disagreements among vegans) but either way it is really interesting to see how different people have come to this approach and the primary problems they are trying to combat with it.

    Awesome article, if only it could be pages long so I could read more of what everyone has to say! 🙂




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Students Navigate Misconceptions and Challenges of Veganism