Meatless eating is hot on Philadelphia college campuses

Clockwise from left: Mustard Cauliflower Dip, Baked Tortilla Chips, Spinach Quinoa Salad and Tamarind Tofu Dip.
Clockwise from left: Mustard Cauliflower Dip, Baked Tortilla Chips, Spinach Quinoa Salad and Tamarind Tofu Dip.
Posted: October 14, 2010

FOR 18 YEARS while growing up in Dallas, Victor Galli ate the standard meat and dairy diet. But when he entered his freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania, Galli took notice of all the nonmeat eaters and, for no particular reason, decided to try vegetarianism.

People began warning him to "watch out" for vegetarianism, that it might be bad for his health, and Galli began to feel slightly bothered.

Now a junior biochemistry nutrition major at Penn, Galli is the co-founder of the Penn Vegetarian Society, an organization that he and two dormitory floor mates created during the spring of 2009.

"Coming into Penn, not all of us really knew that much about the food-related aspect of why people are vegetarian," Galli, who is now a vegan, said. He helped create PVS not only to educate college students about what's in their food, but also to guide those who, like himself, need support transitioning from eating meat to a meatless vegetarian diet or a vegan diet, which also omits dairy and eggs.

"Many more people are going through this, now more than ever," Galli said, noting that PVS has grown from 10 members at its conception to upward of 60 now.

Bon Appétit Management Co., which services Penn's dining facilities, has noticed an upswing in the number of students who say that they are vegetarian or vegan, said Terri Brownlee, the regional director of nutrition for Bon Appétit.

The company manages more than 4,000 corporate, college and university accounts. In a 2005-2006 feedback survey among college students at campuses that Bon Appétit oversees, an average of 8 percent said that they were vegetarian, and less than 1 percent identified themselves as vegan. The 2009-2010 survey, however, had very different results: 12 percent identified themselves as vegetarian and 2 percent said that they follow a vegan diet.

Likewise, on Drexel University's campus, Senior Associate Vice President for Business Services Rita LaRue Gollotti has seen a major swing in campus dining within the past 10 years.

"This is the millennial generation, and they've grown up with a lot more information on dining," said Gollotti, who came to Drexel in 1994 as a graduate student, when the dining options consisted of meat and mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese. "They've grown up on the Food Network, catered birthday parties, and they've grown up experiencing a variety of different flavors.

"There is a lot of interest in eating vegetarian and vegan, but I would say the students don't even know that's what they're doing," Gollotti said. "At this age, there are a lot of students for whom food is an issue, and they don't want to be different.

"Our goal is to make it as integrated as possible so we're not calling them out separately. Some are very, very proud of [being vegetarian or vegan] and have no problems putting it out there, but a lot of students who are 18, 19 years old just want to be part of a group."

When Leah Abrams' vegetarian mother served bean soup and vegetable dishes for dinner, Abrams used to cringe.

"I thought she was nuts," said Abrams, who grew up in Central New Jersey. "I didn't see why anyone would want to be a vegetarian. I loved chicken."

But during her freshman and sophomore years at Penn, Abrams, a senior English major, added Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food to her reading list. She also joined a campus environmental group, which furthered her knowledge regarding the amount of energy it takes to produce food.

"Hearing what everyone else was saying really clued me in," Abrams said, noting that she originally decided to become a vegetarian to reduce her carbon footprint.

Eventually, Abrams learned that meat and animal products, such as eggs and cheese, share the same chemical makeup, and she transitioned to veganism.

"The health reasons aren't enough to sustain it over a long period of time," Abrams said. "It's sort of like a diet. What really made me stick with it came down to the moral and ethical reasons."

Abrams' story demonstrates two of the main reasons people choose vegetarianism and veganism, other than for cultural or religious purposes: environmental issues, animal-ethics issues and human-health issues.

"Anecdotally, the growth in numbers [of vegetarians and vegans] is huge," Galli said. "Historically, when vegan discussions have come up, it's been in philosophy. The explosion that we're now seeing is, the majority of people who are doing it now are doing it for environmental or health reasons. If there is any focus as to what is going on right now, it's because of health awareness."

But Reed Mangels, a certified dietitian since 1979, said that the move toward vegetarianism and veganism for health reasons has been in place for some time. The changing factor now, she said, is the way others respond to one's food choices.

"I would have said originally, there were a lot of people doing it for health reasons, and then the animal-rights thing peaked," said Reed, who is also the nutrition adviser for the Vegetarian Resource Group and co-author of the American Dietary Association's position on vegetarianism.

"It's the attitude of the health profession toward vegetarianism and veganism that has changed. It's gone from doctors questioning whether this is medically sound to, 'You're a vegetarian? So am I.' "

The same could be said for college campuses and possibly all of Philadelphia as well. While Galli initially faced people who questioned his judgment about becoming a vegetarian, PVS has enabled vegetarian and vegan students to find others like themselves. The group also has worked with campus food providers to tweak menus for vegan and vegetarian tastes.

Ian Penkala, a sophomore Penn student majoring in chemical engineering, entered his freshmen year sparingly eating fish, then transitioned into veganism with the support of PVS. At first, Penkala said, he was a "frequenter of the salad bar." But as a member of PVS, he was able to meet with Bon Appétit to help voice the organization's desire for better vegan and vegetarian options, and better labeling, among other concerns.

The hunt for vegan pizza

At the King's Court College English House dormitory's dining hall, on Chestnut Street, Lydia Kumpa, a self-taught Bon Appétit chef, specially prepares fresh vegetarian and vegan dishes, such as cheeseless Roma tomato pizza and tamarind tofu dip, as well as meat options.

Everything that is vegan or vegetarian is labeled, and Kumpa said that she won't label something, like pita chips, as being vegan if she wasn't sure.

Penn switched food services from Aramark to Bon Appétit in fall 2009 and started working more closely with PVS to better its options for vegan and vegetarian students.

"It got easier as the year went on as we started to work with Bon Appétit," Penkala said. "If I didn't find things labeled well, how am I supposed to know there's not something like honey or cheese in it?"

PVS hasn't limited its advocacy to campus food services; it also reaches out to nearby restaurants that students patronize.

"When you are going through diet transition, one of the things you're used to is being able to walk in anywhere, and [getting] anything," Galli said.

"I can give people all the reasons in the world to change their diet, but if they don't have the food, they can't go anywhere," Galli said, adding that at 1 a.m. students are still studying and craving pizza. "There's no late-night Whole Foods open."

PVS approached Samer Albarouki, the owner of Ed's Buffalo Wings and Pizza, at 3135 Lancaster Ave., about one mainstay missing from the vegan college student's life: pizza. Since vegans cannot eat animal products, cheese on a slice of Ed's vegetarian pizza wasn't even an option.

Albarouki immediately began working with PVS to find the proper ingredient - Daiya cheese, a vegan-friendly Canadian brand, had just hit shelves - and now, Ed's vegan pizza is in high demand.

"Philadelphia has become more vegan-friendly, especially in recent months," Penkala said, adding that during Restaurant Week he was able to find at least one entirely vegan meal on several menus, with the exception of dessert.

And, though Abrams has occasionally had to use her "vegan veto" when dining out with friends, she said that around Philadelphia it's not as difficult, due to the abundance of ethnic restaurants and farmers markets.

"It's completely normal to walk into a coffee shop and ask for a soy latte now," Abrams said. "But I can only think of one restaurant at home that offers vegetarian food."

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