Mason Dining Working Towards Being Vegan-Friendly

 

Soy milk, soy milk, soy milk. Before Spring Break 2019, soy milk was the only non-dairy alternative for vegan students dining at George Mason University’s cafeterias. 

Mason Dining is officially providing accessible almond milk to students succeeding Spring Break after having soy milk as their only non-dairy alternative at dining halls. Now, the dining halls have a mini-fridge with cartons of almond milk just next to the cereal bar. Vegan students with dietary restrictions at GMU are expressing their gratitude for the new addition. 

When almond milk became available to students in all three dining halls, Mason Dining took another step toward offering vegan-friendly meal options. 

For the past 50 years, vegans have been the minority, with only 0.4% of vegans among the American population in 2015. However, according to correspondent John Parker from The Economist, veganism is on the rise, especially among younger generations. He also declared 2019 “the year of the vegan”. 

As the vegan trend sweeps through society, more and more individuals started adopting the vegan lifestyle, including many students at George Mason University.

Being a vegan takes dedication and planning. Vegans do not consume meat, fish, poultry, and other animal products and by-products, such as eggs, dairy products, and honey, which can be difficult as many of these are common in our everyday diet. 

Such restrictions pose challenges for students eating in dining halls and for the dining hall dietitians. 

The three dining halls on campus are feeding over 6,200 on-campus students throughout the school year. It is not an easy task to accommodate students with different tastes, needs, allergies and restrictions.

Out of all three of the dining halls on campus, Vegan Society members collectively ranked Southside as the most accommodating, The Globe as second best, while Ike’s as the least.

“I feel like it’s harder for students who just started out veganism than it is for long-time vegans to eat at dining halls ‘cause for long-time vegans, we are smart enough to know what to get, gathering different foods from here and there, in order to get a complete meal in dining halls and get all the nutrients we need to be healthy,” A Vegan Society member said.

According to the registered dietitian at Mason Dining, who started her position a month ago, Veronica Hayes, Mason Dining is trying their best to accommodate students’ various dietary needs. She takes one-on-one appointments and is willing to work with students on their dietary restrictions, both diet-based (veganism/vegetarianism) and medically-based (allergies/eating disorders/digestive disorders) to help them navigate eating at the dining halls.

Regarding menu selection, as Hayes mentioned, the chefs are responsible for creating the menus and she would be the one to look over them afterward to take note of the allergens and give suggestions if need be.

While the dining hall options are limited, Hayes said vegans are still able to get a sufficient amount of a variety of nutrients in dining halls as long as they are aware of the different nutrients in foods.

“Beans are a great option for vegans,” Hayes said, referring to vegan options at dining halls, “There is a salad bar at each dining hall with countless options, such as chickpeas, which serve as a great food source for multiple essential nutrients. At Simple Servings, you can make your own stir fry with all the veggie options,”

In regards to taking requests and comments from students, Hayes expressed that Mason Dining is rather open to requests and are happy to accommodate and implement foods that students have requested.

“We’re getting the requests, we see them, we hear what they’re saying, we hear what they’re requesting,” Hayes mentioned, “and we are definitely working to meet them at least in the middle,”

As stated by Hayes, Mason Dining is currently in the process of becoming more vegan-friendly, and they have even reached out to different organizations to get input. “Meeting with the Vegan Society and Student Dining Committee to try to provide the options that they are requesting,” Hayes explained, “We are willing and open-minded to work with them and figure out what they want to see.”

However, according to the GMU Vegan Society members, Mason Dining has not reached out to them since Hayes took over the position one month ago. 

The Vegan Society did give feedback and requests to dining halls in the past and have had successes. The sunshine burger (a plant-based burger with organic cooked brown rice, ground raw sunflower seeds, carrots, chives, and sea salt, popular among vegans) at Southside was actually a request from the Vegan Society.

Mason Dining has always accredited themselves as vegan-friendly. While they have taken steps to accommodate different vegan and dietary needs that are worth acknowledging, there are still things they have to take note of in order to be on the pathway to success in regards to becoming vegan-friendly.

Brought up by a Vegan Society member, the food labels at dining halls are sometimes not the most accurate. While it is considerate of the dining halls to provide labeling, foods are often mislabeled. Some foods labeled as vegan are not actually 100% vegan, which sometimes causes a lot of frustration and inconvenience.

Clearer labeling is required. There are people of different dietary needs and styles and that should be taken into consideration. “They should be clearer when it comes to labeling. Maybe “V” for vegan, and “VG” for vegetarian,” GMU Vegan Society member said.

Regarding how Mason Dining can improve with being more vegan-friendly, Vegan Society members expressed that staff training is the key. 

Generally, the dining halls themselves have enough resources to be accommodating as vegan options often exist, but not all staff members are aware. According to members from the Vegan Society, when staff is approached with dietary requests, they sometimes do not know how to handle the special requests as they do not have enough prior experience and/or training in that area.  

For instance, almond milk has always been available at the dining halls before Spring Break, however, not accessible to students. 

“They’ve always had a sign up at Southside saying almond milk is available upon request, but it was never really accessible since you have to talk to a staff member about it,” A member of the GMU Vegan Society said, “And when you do get a hold of someone, they might not know about the almond milk supply or where it is and had to get another staff member. Basically, the whole process is really tedious. I’m glad the almond milk is easily accessible to students now.”

Nevertheless, students do see the progress Mason Dining has been making. Upperclassmen from the Vegan Society mentioned that oatmeal from dining halls used to contain milk, but became vegan-friendly a few years ago, and now an almond milk fridge is within an arm’s reach. 

“We do need more specifics,” Hayes commented in regards to receiving requests from students, “We’re largely not a vegan/vegetarian staff, so to know what they want to see and what they are used to eating is very helpful,”

Despite having a lack of vegan/vegetarian expertise within their staff, Mason Dining is on the path to becoming more vegan-friendly.

“We are making sure that we are listening to the vegan community on campus because we know that they need to be supported,” Hayes said in regards to the strengths of Mason Dining in incorporating vegan options, “I think that having an open mind, and not just shutting it down is really great and that they are willing to go out and do the research to figure out how they can get those options on campus is a really good starting point,”

With the new school year just around the corner, the Student Dining Board under Student Government is currently recruiting new committee members in preparation for communicating students’ needs to Mason Dining, advocating for change and improvement.