Going Vegan on Campus: The 14-day Challenge


Can a college student find adequate vegan nourishment in the cafeteria?

How does a depressed vegan self-medicate? One week after going vegan in a dorm, I slammed stomach first into a wall of emotion and self-doubt. I wanted real food.

Vegans can’t have dairy, meat, or eggs—basically, anything worth eating. By day three, I craved a double-chocolate brownie that oozed creamy goodness. My mouth watered for cheesy pizza with  grease pooling on top. I wanted mashed potatoes drowning in butter and cheese, movie-style buttered popcorn, ice cream, and my grandma’s chocolate chip cookies. I wanted to eat food that would make my taste buds scream in delight and my arteries protest in horror.

Instead, I found myself with a jar of peanut butter and a package of Oreos. I was on a mission to see if I could survive for two weeks on vegan dorm food and maybe lose a few of the pounds that had taken up residence on my stomach. The inspiration came from a friend who had recently gone vegan and lost 12 pounds.

The University of Iowa food service does not offer much in the way of animal-product-free or non-fried-food eating options. They have daily vegan options, but often they were mysteriously “out.” Within one week of being vegan, I had  veggie jambalaya three times. The veggie nuggets and falafel were as good as to be expected in a cafeteria. I often found myself munching on salad with cold peas and sunflower seeds or a baked potato with broccoli and a sprinkle of salt. Not exactly soul-satisfying food.

My biggest complaint was the lack of labeling. I had no idea whether the pasta was vegan or if the bread in the sandwich line was something I could spread peanut butter on. So I avoided these choices, instead sticking to the aforementioned monotony.

When I told people I was going vegan for two weeks, most would shake their head and refer to me as “that girl.”

That girl who was obsessed about what others were eating. That girl who tried to prove she was better than everyone else  because she was not eating any animal products.

Yep. I was that girl.

Vegan Statistics

According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, approximately 1.4 percent of Americans adults are vegan. Meaning  there are a few million people abstaining from anything made with animal products. This includes honey and butter, yet somehow does not include Oreos.

Women are twice as likely to be vegan as males. College graduates are more likely to be vegan than those who have not finished high school.

I fit right into that demographic.

People go vegan for a number of reasons, including to improve health, prevent animal cruelty, and protect the environment. For all the tree-hugging individuals out there, vegan might be the way to go. A 2007 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that a conventional diet creates greater environmental impact. Beef is the food with the highest single impact, and a vegan diet has the least.

However, even vegans get the munchies. Who in their right mind wants to gnaw on raw carrot sticks all the time? Thankfully, PETA has compiled a list of vegan snacks that I could eat if I was ever in the mood for some processed food. Fritos are vegan. So are Jolly Ranchers and Keebler animal crackers. Teddy Grahams, Tricuits, and Ritz crackers make the cut too. Although these may be vegan, they are not the healthiest choices. A mere 32 Fritos have 15 percent of the recommend daily fat intake and no nutritional value whatsoever.

For breakfast, as a vegan I could eat Fruit Loops and Cocoa Puffs while drinking Ghirardelli hot chocolate—made with water, of course. I could even have a Krispy Kreme fruit pie if I wanted.

However, I was in the dorms and wanted to rely on cafeteria food as much as possible. Besides Fruit Loops and Cocoa Puffs, which I did eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the other options weren’t available to me. Why can’t there be good vegan food in the cafeteria?

Vegans on Campus

In 2008, PETA2, a youth offshoot of the animal-rights organization, had a contest for the most vegetarian-friendly campuses in the country. American University in Washington, D.C., won first place. They  offer at least four vegetarian options per day, with many of those vegan. They also focus on buying goods that are locally grown, reducing the environmental impact and increasing sustainability.

PETA2’s idea for the contest came about after a recent surge in the number of schools offering vegetarian and vegan options. For PETA2, it was a way to showcase schools that are striving to meet the needs of students who prefer animal-free meals.

In corresponding with PETA2’s Campaign Coordinator Ryan Huling, I discovered that simply offering vegan options wasn’t enough to win the contest. The meals also had to appeal to students in appearance and taste. And the institution had to respond to student requests for vegan options in a timely manner.

Huling has noticed that campuses  across the country are now offering vegan meals in their cafeterias. Ivy, coastal, Midwest, private, and public are all represented in the contest—a good sign for vegan students.

To give the University of Iowa credit, they have been attempting to change the way students look at food. In spring 2009, administrators sent out a survey about dining in the cafeterias. Only a few respondents asked to increase vegan options.

The Two-Week Trial

How did it go for me? At the end of my two weeks, I am doing okay. My energy has rebounded. I don’t feel like the living dead anymore. I’ve managed to find enough alternatives to what I normally eat to get by. I may have gone through an entire jumbo-sized jar of peanut butter in two weeks, but, hey, I need my protein.

Did I mention I lost seven pounds? The loosening of the pants alone is reason enough to continue the diet. Which I may—in moderation. But for tomorrow, my stomach will be satisfied with greasy pizza and a chocolate brownie.