When Brooke Bagnall ’14 walks into the school cafeteria around midday to buy her lunch, more than a quarter of the options available to other students are off limits for her. Bagnall is one of a sizable group of vegetarian students who abstain from eating meat, while trying to consume their necessary nutrients from the school cafeteria.
Vegetarianism is thought to stem back from ancient Greece in the 6th Century BCE. After being abandoned for an era, the practice reemerged and has continuously grown through the centuries, culminating in majorly revived movements prominent in the United Kingdom and United States, as a result of progressive nutritional, food-safety, ethical, and environmental concerns. Now, 7.3 million people in the United States are vegetarians, according to Vegetarian Times, an online vegetarian newspaper, about 22.8 million more Americans follow “vegetarian-inclined diets.” Though the definition varies throughout different countries and cultures, the popular guideline followed by most vegetarians is abstaining from meat, fish, and poultry.
Kate Kushi ’14, who was raised a vegetarian, said, “We have a pretty amazing cafeteria for a high school, but there definitely aren’t as many vegetarian options as I would hope for. And sometimes there isn’t a lot of variety. You know, it’s usually pasta all the time. I really enjoy the vegetarian selection that I eat from, but I wish there was more.”
On the other hand, vegetarian Emma Pasarow ’14 is satisfied with the amount and variety of protein-rich foods she is able to choose from in the cafeteria. After picking up the environmentally conscious practice from her vegetarian father, Pasarow has found that she can get along fine at school as long as she sticks to the same protein-rich staples every day.
“When I started it was pretty hard,” Pasarow said. Now, I usually hit up the salad bar, which has a lot of options. And I have apples and peanut butter, a lot of peanut butter, because of the protein. You have to work out a system.”
As long as she eats nutrient-rich foods like tofu, lentils, beans, soy, nuts, and yogurt later in the day at home, Pasarow is confident that she gets the protein, iron, and calcium she needs each day.
Many vegetarians even find themselves taking a step further in the direction of veganism. Vegans abstain from the use and consumption of all animal products.
Johnny Felker ’14, a four-year vegan, said, “I became a vegetarian about four years ago because I was convinced by a friend of mine that it would be a healthy choice to do so. After about a month of trying it out I further researched it and realized just how brutal and barbaric the meat and dairy industries really are so I decided to go vegan, with the exception of eggs occasionally, in protest of those said industries.”
A large concentration of these anything-but-meat-eaters is located in health-conscious Los Angeles, a movement which is reflected in the student body of Harvard-Westlake. Whether vegetarian students have been decidedly vegetarian since an early age, or have more recently picked up the trend, they all rely on the same source: the school cafeteria. Unless a student brings their own food from home, the cafeteria’s job is to provide for all types of student diets, supplying students with the nutrients necessary for them to have a healthy lifestyle and perform to the best abilities.
Vegetarians are responsible for attaining all the nutrients they are not able to directly consume from meat, especially their proteins, iron, and calcium. Since only a small amount of students at Harvard-Westlake are vegetarian, it is inevitable that the cafeteria cannot focus soley on catering to these specific diets.
Cafeteria workers feel that they offer a sizeable number of choices for vegetarians, though many of these foods like rice, pasta and fruit are presented for students with any type of diet, and are not specifically oriented towards providing nutrients which vegetarians usually lack. While the cafeteria sells certain bars, nuts, yogurt, salad toppings and soymilk, common items that vegetarians try to implement in their diets, the dining hall does not usually prepare vegetarian versions of foods which can substitute for meat dishes such as soy or tofu hot dogs, tofu egg scrambles, soy chicken nuggets or dairy-free ice cream like Tofutti. However, cafeteria worker Phairot Janthep made it clear that the cafeteria does attempt to provide hot, substantial meals for vegetarians. The problem is that very few people buy veggie burgers or tofu when these types of foods are offered, and so the cafeteria has cut back on preparing these sorts of items.
“As far as being vegan goes, I find myself being left with a choice between an exciting bowl of plain rice or a scrumptious bag of sunchips every day, which has started to get on my nerves,” Felker said.
Though this is most likely due to the much smaller ratio of vegetarians to non-vegetarians at Harvard-Westlake, the cafeteria itself has never heard a complaint from this student population.
“It’s not the healthiest option, but I don’t mind eating pizza or fries for lunch every day,” Bagnall said.