Katy Hopkins

These schools provide ways for students to honor their dietary restrictions while still eating well

Hamburgers, hot dogs, and turkey subs are common staples in college campus dining halls. But seitan-stuffed mushrooms, vegetarian bacon, and General Tso's tofu aren't always as readily available.

For college students who choose to limit their diet -- whether vegetarian, gluten free, Kosher, or vegan -- finding a wide selection of food that both meets their needs and tastes good can be difficult, given the typically meager options in dining halls that often include little more than self-serve cereal stations and salad bars.

"I definitely, definitely got bored of just having hummus, salad, and soy chicken once in awhile if [the dining hall] had it," says Katie Greene, a vegetarian and rising junior at Franklin and Marshall College who is looking forward to moving into an off-campus apartment where she'll have a kitchen to prepare her own meals. "At home, I didn't have a problem; my dad and sister are vegetarians. At school, it was difficult because our dining hall didn't necessarily offer that much."

For many, college is a time of experimentation, be it in academic interests, lifestyle changes, or diet. And with the number of college-aged vegetarians on the rise -- 12 percent consider themselves part of the dietary description, according to a 2009-2010 Bon Appetit Management Company survey -- "students are ahead of the curve of their very campuses and food providers," says Chris Elam, program director of Meatless Mondays at the Monday Campaigns, a nonprofit public health initiative. "They have already moved to a more plant-based diet, and the campuses are following slowly."

But some schools already have a multitude of opportunities for students to experiment with new ways of eating. Whether you're a seasoned vegetarian, are considering restricting your diet, or you simply want to learn more about the environmental impacts of eating meat, here is a selection of the colleges that may foster your lifestyle choices:

Strictly vegetarian cuisine:

For students at the Maharishi University of Management , going meatless is the norm, not an exception. The school in Fairfield, Iowa, where daily meditation is encouraged, only serves vegetarian and vegan foods. The same was true until March at Bastyr University near Seattle; now, campus lunches include one meat option. Founded by a vegetarian, the school emphasizes a natural health philosophy that is inherent to vegetarianism, says Director of Food Services Jim Watkins.

The culinary offerings at Bastyr are in stark contrast to what was served by Watkins's previous employer -- the University of Washington -- where he was executive chef to a large mass of students and where vegetarianism was a subculture, not pervasive. "You had to have a certain amount of traditional American-style college junk food," he notes. "You had to have hot dogs; you had to have fries; you had to have nachos and Rice Krispie bars." At Bastyr, where there are fewer than 1,000 students, "people are very sophisticated diners," Watkins says.

Food courses:

When several students at Westminster College asked theatre professor Nina Vought to teach them about her vegan eating style, she realized there was a demand for a culinary education with an environmental slant. Such was the impetus for Eco-Logical Eating, a monthlong course she's offered during the Salt Lake City school's May term for three years. Vought teaches the course in her home a mile from campus (students are required to get there using some form of alternative transportation) where she serves students vegan dishes, from French toast made with cashews to homemade bread pudding.

"This is the first time for many of them that they realize vegan food is not [just] iceburg lettuce and carrot sticks," Vought says.

The class has been wildly popular, requiring a second section and a wait list each year. It's been influential, too: Vought says many students have altered their eating habits after experiencing new foods and learning about environmental concerns.

Vought says she's even been approached by the University of Utah to replicate the course, and is considering writing a book on her tips for teaching it. Elsewhere, philosophy courses -- such as Andy Egan's 4-credit Eating Right: The Ethics of Food Choices and Food Policy at Rutgers University , and Good Food, a course twice offered at Franklin and Marshall College -- are often other educational avenues for students interested in delving into the ethical and environmental implications of consuming animal meat.

Weekly initiatives:

Meatless Mondays, a nationwide campaign to encourage mindful eating, isn't exactly as it sounds: Animal proteins aren't necessarily prohibited in the dining halls, restaurants, and hospitals involved in the effort. But for one day a week, the dining services involved offer additional vegetarian and vegan options to consumers, in hopes that the promotion encourages them to be more aware of their food choices. Already a staple at about 50 colleges, including the University of Virginia , Syracuse University , and Colby College , the program could see more than a tenfold increase at college campuses this fall. Sodexo, the food provider to about 650 colleges, will offer the program to its institutional clients starting next semester.

"We don't -- in any way -- want to encourage taking meat off the campus, but it encourages students and professors to think more about what [food] the school provides," says Meatless Monday Program Director Chris Elam. "That encourages a great deal of dialogue, and there's a greater chance for meatless options to pop up on other days of the week."

Campus agriculture:

Some colleges offer students a way to get directly involved in producing the veggies they may later consume. Schools including Warren Wilson College , St. Mary's College of Maryland , and the University of California -- Davis run campus farms, where produce grown is often later sold to the dining halls. At St. Mary's, the farm also doubles as a classroom for courses such as Books that Cook, as professors tie gardening experiences into lessons about environmentalism and sustainability.

Local emphasis:

Of course, schools don't need to supply their own organic produce to give students a chance to sample local flavor. After Bates College received an anonymous $2.5 million donation several years ago, Director of Dining Services Christine Schwartz pledged to use the money for the benefit of both students and local food producers. With the funds, she buys organic produce from 32 farmers throughout Maine and uses the food in the school's dining area, which includes a new vegan platform for students. Elsewhere in the Northeast, the University of Connecticut 's Local Routes program is committed to offering local fruits and vegetables, coffees, teas, and milk.

Dining hall outreach:

In a recent school survey, nearly 30 percent of Goucher College students indicated they were vegetarians, according to Norman Zwagil, campus food provider general manager. And they now likely find a variety of options in the campus dining hall. Before, the school followed code to offer one vegetarian entree per meal, but now about 60 percent of the food sent from food provider Bon Appetit Management Company is vegetarian, he says.

"We went from being compliant with our company's principles to now having many more options because of the number of people who are committed to being vegetarian or vegan," he says. That's important for carnivorous students as well, he notes; just because you eat meat doesn't mean you want to consume it every day, he says.

Student activists:

If you're unhappy with your school's dining options, don't be afraid to take your concerns to campus dining services personnel, says Westminster College's Vought. "This is the way [students] can use their voice and be active in helping change the policies of colleges," she notes. "When they do, everybody wins."

Such change is afoot at St. Mary's College of Maryland, which student vegetarian Lindsey Siferd says has been culinarily revitalized over the past year. After students pushed for higher quality dining options -- including more vegetarian offerings -- she says the school's food provider, Bon Appetit Management Company, responded positively. After a campaign on Facebook, a protest against Chick-fil-A, and student meetings with Bon Appetit, requests for a greater variety of healthy food on campus were met.

"Use your voices -- students are the paying customers," notes Debra Boutin, head of the nutrition and exercise science department at Bastyr University. "Just going away to school is such a huge life change. The last thing you need is not to be well nourished."

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