MARINA GENTILCORE– Despite Denison’s A+ vegan rating, the dining halls have limited vegan and vegetarian options, and they sometimes exclude plant-based sources of protein or mislabel the food. Although the dining committee is working to expand the number of vegan and vegetarian options, many believe there remains a considerable amount of work to be done in terms of clarifying signage and ensuring that there is always a plant-based protein at each meal.
Sophia Mook ‘21 from New York City majoring in environmental studies, recounts her own experience as a vegan navigating Curtis West dining hall. On one occasion, she asked the dining staff whether the cheese they were serving was vegan. They told her yes, but she was skeptical, so she asked them again to make sure. Again, they confirmed that the cheese was dairy-free. However, upon consuming the cheese, she realized that it was not vegan, and she became sick for a week. Sophia usually finds herself eating salad because of the lack of vegan options. Although Curtis occasionally serves tofu and beans on Fajita Friday, Sophia agrees that the dining hall could definitely improve their plant-based protein options.
The dining staff is working to improve the availability and quality of vegan and vegetarian food in the dining halls. General Manager Paul Mixa and Executive Chef Jon O’Carroll discuss the ways in which they are trying to accomplish this.
First, they try to ensure that there is one plant-based protein at every meal. Curtis also has an allergen/pure fare section which is entirely vegan. The dining committee also conducts a weekly review of menu options.
O’Carroll said, “There is definitely an imbalance in the menu, with there being far more options for animal protein than there are for plant-based protein.”
He adds that the chefs strive to be creative when preparing plant-based protein — they won’t cook just plain tofu, but marinate it or add other ingredients to make it interesting.
Mislabeling food and unclear signage has also become an issue. When it comes to choosing vegan, the green icon is typically what students look for; however, the icon has appeared next to non-vegan items such as sausage, and this poses a concern to students and the dining staff.
The salad bar is particularly confusing because dairy and meat are often mixed into the items, and without clear labels, it is difficult for some to discern what is vegan/vegetarian and what is not.
“The managers are in charge of labeling the food,” said O’Carroll, “ and the dining staff have discussed the problem at previous meetings. To counter unclear signage, the staff have proposed creating larger, clearer labels and adding signs to the salad bar so that students know exactly what is in the food.”
Although the dining halls still have work to do to in terms of improving the availability of vegan and vegetarian options and clarifying signage, they have already made significant strides in increasing the variety of the food they serve and meeting students’ dietary needs. For instance, the staff cook meals for students with special dietary restrictions (no sodium, no iodine, etc.). Recently, they have also introduced “pop-ups” to the dining halls, which are non-traditional meals such as tacos and food for special holidays such as Mardi Gras. By ensuring that all meals include a source of plant-based protein and making signs easy to read, the dining halls can improve their service, and vegans and vegetarians will have greater confidence in choosing their meals.