The First Year Food Fiasco

The First Year Food Fiasco
by Laura Beaulne-Stuebing, September 6, 2007

I am vegan. I am a university student. Last year, I lived in residence and had a mandatory meal plan. It was a recipe for a terrible year of eating.

Becoming vegetarian or vegan is a big step for most people. It’s a change in lifestyle and a statement of values – a way to live by what you believe. But being a veggie university student can be even harder than proclaiming: “I’m a vegetarian, and proud of it!”

I had a rough time last year. So, to any university student, vegan or not, maybe my story can offer you some hope, inspiration, and guidance. And maybe the story of my first year at university can show you how NOT to do it.

First, I’ll introduce myself – I’m a student at Huron College, an affiliate of the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, and majoring in political science. I want to live a sustainable, healthy, environmentally friendly, and wholesome life. That’s why I decided to become vegan – the holy vegan triumvirate of ethics, health, and the environment.

Question: how do we live by our values, when our living situation doesn’t allow it?

Answer: um, don’t live in residence, and don’t eat out of a cafeteria. That’s my advice to you, if you care about wholesome, healthy living.

I want a positive relationship with the food I eat. Food can be something very special. It can be creative expression. The food I choose to eat can be locally and lovingly grown, it can be organic, and it can be cooked, baked, or shaped into a beautiful meal with my own hands. But a cafeteria is anonymous. The food there is mass produced. It’s nothing special.

So what’s my story? Well, I didn’t come out of the vegan closet until this summer, after my first year of university. I’d been peeking though the door all year long, but didn’t decide to make it “official” until recently. I’ve never eaten much dairy and eggs in my lifetime – I don’t like eggs and I’m intolerant to dairy. Since turning vegan, I haven’t lost out on food to eat. In fact, stepping out of the vegan closet has opened doors to new foods and ideas.

Those doors were closed – locked in fact – from September until May. The cafeteria at school didn’t provide much for me. Just imagine a typical cafeteria. A “lunch lady” standing behind a line of large metal serving dishes; the dishes filled with gooey stews, meaty meals, and cheesy side dishes. Things were fried beyond my liking, had more sauce than would ever be necessary, and simply didn’t look appetizing. I asked how things were prepared – away from the meat I was assured – but I could never be certain. I just didn’t trust the cafeteria.

Because I didn’t trust the cafeteria, I didn’t eat out of the cafeteria. And because I couldn’t make much for myself out of my dorm room, I lacked nutrition – it actually became a problem because I began to lose weight. I asked for help from the cafeteria manager and chef, but not much changed.

Zojirushi 6-c. Rice Cooker and Steamer
It cooks rice AND steams!
It’s two, two, two things in one!

So, I became determined to make my own food. I got a veg steamer and grain cooker, a Magic Bullet, and would get raw veggies from the cafeteria and prepare them in my dorm room. I went grocery shopping for pita bread, oatmeal, other grains, melba toast, soymilk, and canned beans. I made couscous, steamed veggies, and hummus.

That was the best I could do for myself. Does it sound like I’m a culinary expert? I’m not even close – I didn’t learn much about cooking food. It takes little knowledge to make couscous and to steam veggies with a vegetable steamer – just press a button. And I wasn’t living a sustainable and healthy life.

And sure, I was making my own food, and it kind of worked for me, but I was isolated. The cafeteria was a social space that I missed out on.

Yes, the combination of things was a recipe for a bad year, but I survived – even if just barely! You can too, if you know what you’re getting into. Know what your cafeteria provides – and if they don’t provide what you need, make them. That’s what I should have done. And if you just can’t be in harmony with a cafeteria, like me, talk to the higher-ups at your institution. Maybe they can help. Maybe you can come to an agreement that works for you. If not, be prepared to prepare your own food – or eat a lot of dry cereal.

As for living sustainably and creating a special relationship to food? A school cafeteria is not really the place to start. Now that I’m out, I have the chance to live by my values. I’m proud of my recent change from vegetarian to vegan, and I have a lot to look forward to.

I’m looking forward to my second year – it will be different, better. I’m renting a house with four friends, two omnis (who love their fried meat – oh no!) and one lacto-ovo vegetarian. I’ll have a stove, a sink, and everything I need to prepare the meals that I want. And I’ll have the opportunity to experiment, and learn how to cook. I’m no expert – but I can learn to be one!

I’m looking forward to buying local foods, and supporting the only co-op store in the city. I want to meet other vegetarians and vegans – I don’t know many but want to learn from them and share our struggles. Maybe my take on life as a vegan student – trying to live by my beliefs – will inspire you and give you something to laugh, think, and talk about. And maybe it’ll give you some ideas to change your own life.

This upcoming school year will be an adventure. It’ll be my first year of vegan university.

Laura is a university student in London, Ontario.

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