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How Many Vegans Does It Take to Change a University?

How Many Vegans Does It Take to Change a University?

There are a few typical questions you’ll get asked in your first year of university. They’re mundane and bland, and yet everyone seems compelled to ask such things as though they’re the essence of university life. It all dies out after a week or two, don’t worry, but if you’re on your way to university in September you might as well brace yourself for the insightful, meaningful topics such as -

‘Which course are you studying?’

‘Which city have you come from?’

‘Which year are you in?’

Tiresome and boring as they are, such questions were limping around the table during my first meal at Cambridge university, strangers effortfully trying to keep conversation going in the austere setting of Downing College as though silence would obliterate us all.

And then, as my measly, vegan main dish was set down, my neighbours stared down at it, suddenly alert to the potential of some interesting topic.

‘What’s that - oh, so why are you vegan?’

It’s a question I’ve been asked many times over the last eight years, and it’s not all that easy to answer when the food you’ve been lumped with is bland, tasteless, and dull. I went vegan initially for my health, but later learnt about the cruel practices inherent in the animal industries. Soon after, I researched the environmental effects and found that veganism was vital if we want any hope of mitigating the climate crisis. In short, it’s one of the best things we can do for a kinder, more sustainable, healthier world.

All that’s well and good, and is irrefutable when you consider objective science.

But on that particular occasion, I would have had an easier time explaining it had I not had a pitiful pile of salad greens and a questionable bit of tofu on my plate at the time… It didn’t help that my dessert was a half-brown banana (still in skin), half a kiwi, and half a grape. Really, half a grape - where’d the other half gone? To this day I still wonder…

Now I know this is, to some extent, the sulky complaints of what was otherwise a huge privilege, and in a way it is absurd to complain about food when almost one billion people are malnourished and suffering from food and water insecurity.

However, veganism is repeatedly shown to be the single biggest way that those of us in more economically developed countries can protect the planet, animals, and ourselves. And for those of us in far more unfortunate situations, we should recognise that we could feed everyone on the planet, plus four billion more people if need be, on a vegan diet. We simply cannot do that with our Western, animal-heavy diets, which contribute directly to the starvation and suffering of humans in other parts of the world.

With that in mind, we do need to recognise that vegan options at university must be far more convenient and appealing if we want any hope of significantly changing the UK’s views on veganism. There are over two million people at British universities. For many of them, it’s their first time away from home and the first time they explore their own culinary skills. 18-24 year olds are also one of the groups most open to veganism and most concerned about the environment (makes sense, seeing as we’re the ones lumped with the worst of the climate crisis).

In all of these ways and more, there is so much potential for a vegan revolution across universities. But if all their university serves in the way of vegan food is a jacket potato and beans, or half-grapes (yes, I’m still upset about it), then that opportunity is wasted.

And the thing is, students do want more vegan options. That’s one reason I ran a petition at Cambridge in my final year; hundreds of students signed it, asking for more vegan options at their dining halls, and after a successful training day for chefs with a vegan cook, several of the college halls expanded on their vegan options to great success. Some of them even do meat-free Mondays now. Yes, petitions can work! Who knew?

But alas, for me those changes only came about in the last few months I was at university. You may be in the same boat. That’s one of the reasons Viva! is expanding into universities, encouraging them to create more sustainable, plant-based meals at their cafeterias and halls, and developing vegan recipe books specifically for students on a budget (good news, you can easily save money on a vegan lifestyle).

In terms of what I cooked for myself, I wanted cheap, sustainable, healthy and quick meals. Wholegrains, beans, and leafy greens are the way to go and easily tick all the above boxes. They were, and still are, the foundation to nearly all my meals, plus some olive oil, herbs and spices to give the food a bit more flavour. I could often cook it all with just one pan and a wooden spoon. The Vegan Recipe Club student recipe section was an invaluable resource for inspiration, tips and product advice. 

If you’re vegan and moving to university soon, I’d recommend reading Viva!’s guide on healthy eating, join your university vegan society or help contact us to help found a Viva! society. Remember to kick up a fuss if your university isn’t providing enough vegan options!

After all, you’re plowing £9000 in tuition fees into university each year, plus maintenance costs (I think I’m on about £47,000 of debt right now, joy). You really ought to get some actual vegan food in return.

By William Sorflaten, Viva! Campaigner