The tofu way: an increase in compassionate eating
Calvin has become home to many vegetarians and vegans who have given up eating meat or animal products for ethical reasons or dietary preferences.
Everyone loves to hate dining hall food. Meal complaints are frequent among the tables of Knollcrest or Commons no matter what time of day. Criticism of the monotonous selection of food has been uttered by everyone at some point.
Now imagine how limited that selection would really be if there was no meat involved. Or taking the lack of animal products further, imagine not eating cheese, eggs, milk or certain types of salad dressings.
But across Calvin’s campus, more and more students are voluntarily giving up all of these foods and adopting a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Vegetarians choose not to eat meat for various reasons such as health, environmental or ethical concerns. Vegans take a stricter approach to their diets by cutting out the consumption of any animal products, including mayonnaise or honey.
Calvin offers some support for the vegetarian or vegan lifestyle in organizations like Students for Compassionate Living, Social Justice Committee and the Environmental Stewardship Coalition. The dining halls have also made efforts to promote healthier eating by offering entrees that don’t have meat or can be eaten by vegans.
Professor Matt Halteman also offers an Interim class entitled Peaceable Kingdom where students can learn about the philosophy behind eating or not eating certain types of food based on exploration of animal rights from a Christian perspective.
Freshman Matt Walters took this Interim class this past January. After taking the class and reading “The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter” by Peter Singer, he converted to veganism after having been a vegetarian for a year and a half before that.
“Even being vegetarian, there are quite a few reasons to be vegan,” said Walters. He explained that his transition has involved excluding only a few more things from his diet, such as candies which have certain gelatins or glycerin in them that have come from animal products.
Walters said that he became a vegetarian after working at a summer camp where he formed friendships with other vegetarians and after learning more about the lifestyle from his brother who is a vegetarian as well. He shifted to veganism when he realized more about the ethical reasons for doing so.
“The ethical reasons were probably there the longest, and I knew that eventually I would be vegan, but my reasons were supported more through reading and taking the Interim class,” Walters explained. “Initially the environmental concern appealed to me the most with how wasteful it is and how energy can be conserved with eating lower on the food chain.”
Morgan Blizzard, a sophomore, has adopted the vegetarian lifestyle as well and has also taken the Peaceable Kingdom class. Blizzard’s journey to being a vegetarian began when she arrived at Calvin a year and a half ago, once she felt that she could make more independent decisions on what she ate.
“For me, the current situation of the food industry — specifically the animal food industry — is something I don’t feel that I can support, and this is a concrete way that I can boycott it” said Blizzard. “After the Interim class, I am what I would consider a strict vegetarian. I don’t eat meat, I don’t buy any more leather or animal products, I don’t use products that have been tested on animals and I don’t eat eggs or drink milk, unless it’s a rare occasion.”
She has continued her vegetarian lifestyle while living in the dorms and eating at the dining halls, even though her family has been disapproving and doesn’t always understand why she has adopted her beliefs. “I didn’t want it to be something that my family had to deal with, and I wanted it to be my own personal decision and my personal journey,” Blizzard explained.
Blizzard elaborated on her ethical reasons for not eating meat by explaining that agribusiness is the most popular way of farming in the United States.
“It’s not about caring for the earth or the animals and making sure that they’re healthy; it’s about profit,” said Blizzard. “Farmers are being forced into this and are finding themselves in situations where they need to answer to large corporations, just because of the economic situation of small farms.
“Because there is such a big focus on profit, most animals don’t spend time outside,” Blizzard continued. “They are fed growth hormones and antibiotics because there are so many of them and this is how they can keep the disease levels down in the farms. In eating meat from animals on these farms, we are ingesting these hormones and antibiotics. It’s disastrous and devastating the way that these animals are living.”
While some vegetarians feel passionately about animal rights, some decide not to eat meat for other reasons. “I’m a vegetarian because I don’t like the taste of meat,” said Karlee Kage, a sophomore.
Kage explained that she hasn’t considered ever becoming vegan because for her it is an issue of taste.
“I don’t know a lot about the issues surrounding why people become vegan or why it hits certain people so hard,” she said.
Senior Bethany Bertapelle, on the other hand, first became interested in vegetarianism toward the end of high school due to friends’ influences. Upon coming to Calvin she decided to become a vegan as she could control more of what she would eat. Bertapelle adopted a vegan lifestyle after her sophomore year.
“The more I looked into it, the more reasons I found for adopting that lifestyle,” she said. “My primary reason is the ethics of non-violence and respect for animal life, as well as environmental and health reasons and human rights reasons. For me, it’s mainly an issue of respecting life.”
Last summer, Bertapelle was an intern at Farm Sanctuary in New York, which is an organization that takes in animals that have been mistreated — mostly farm animals. Farm Sanctuary also educates and advocates animal rights protection. She took care of hens and roosters from the Tyson factory farm that had been ruined in Hurricane Katrina.
Regardless of reasons for turning to alternate forms of food consumption, all vegans and vegetarians come across some challenges, whether in maintaining a healthy diet, defending their causes among their peers, or trying to find food to eat in Calvin’s dining halls.
“It’s a pretty big hassle,” said Walters. “I have to go to the ice cream bar to get soy milk, even if there’s a really long line.” He also said that it’s hard and mundane to eat healthily at Knollcrest, and choices are limited when one can only eat hummus and pitas or greens for every meal.
And for being a new vegan, Walters has come across some challenges in deciding what he can eat. “It sometimes is ambiguous as to whether or not the vegetables were cooked in butter,” he explained. “It’s not convenient, for sure, and it gets boring after a while.”
Despite the eating struggle at the dining hall, Blizzard said that “it has definitely gotten a lot better.” She said that compared to last year the dining halls have made a big improvement.
“There isn’t a lot of variety, and we’ve had problems when there’s the same meal for lunch and dinner,” she said. “But in general, I feel like they’re making improvements, and I appreciate that. If there’s change going on, then that’s good, and I can only hope that it continues to get better. I try to do what I can with what I have.”
“I don’t think it’s too bad,” said Kage, echoing Blizzard’s attitude. “There’s enough variety that you can find something to eat. It gets a little monotonous every day, but I think that’s the way it is for everyone.”
When Walters, Blizzard, Kage or Bertapelle explain to those they come in contact with that they are vegetarian or vegan, frequently the first question that’s asked of them is ‘Why?’ Their responses are varied, but the general responses of their audience are similar.
For Walters, sometimes people react positively to his eating habits, while some people are very critical. But the majority of people are curious about his reasons and are understanding of his responses.
Blizzard explained that last year was much harder for her to be a vegetarian on campus, since she received much criticism and jokes from her peers about her decisions.
“This year, it’s a lot easier for me to be accepted or left alone when it comes to my food choices,” she said. “I’m a lot stronger [than last year]. It forced me to do the research to give answers to people.”
“I try to be passive about it and not bring it up if I don’t have to,” said Blizzard. “I feel for the most part it’s not a big deal, but now I’ve surrounded myself with people who would be more comfortable about it.”
“When people first find out that I’m a vegetarian, they get really argumentative, and after I explain that I don’t like the taste of meat they’re a little more understanding, but initially they have a stereotype in their head, and they get kind of angry,” said Kage.
Bertapelle said that people respond to her lifestyle in similar ways. “They either get really defensive saying, ‘Oh, I don’t eat that much meat either,’ or they feel that they need to defend themselves,” she said. “Some go so far as to tell me stories about how much they like hunting.
“My family at first thought it was unhealthy and didn’t understand why I was doing that and wanted me to stop, but then they looked into it and a lot of them are turning vegetarian or vegan,” Bertapelle said.
“Lots of people hear vegan and immediately think of some crazy animal rights activists,” said Walters. “But we do have reasons that, to us at least, are very sound. The media portrays vegans as being overly active.”
“When you first realize what’s going on, you get really upset about it and wonder why everyone else doesn’t want to change it too,” Bertapelle said. “PETA and organizations like that give it a bad name because of some of their tactics, but I think most advocates use peaceful methods.
“I think when I first got into this I was a lot more aggressive and it wasn’t very productive. And now I’ve found more of a balance of sensing where people are and encouraging them however I think it’s helpful.” Bertapelle realizes the stereotype often associated with vegans and vegetarians, but she said that it depends more on every individual’s personality.
“I really wish people would take a more honest look at it instead of writing it off as just a radical movement or thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t want to look at it because then I might have to change something,’” said Bertapelle. “It’s not as big of a change as a lot of people think it is. It can be difficult at first, but then it just seems natural. I think it’s most important to be honest with yourself and realize that you’re doing the right thing no matter what you decide.”
“It’s a strictly personal choice for me,” Blizzard said, “and I don’t expect anyone else to change just because I have changed or have shared my opinions with them. I really appreciate it when people are willing to listen and ask questions about it and are willing to explore it.”
Blizzard continued to say that it is a learning experience for vegetarians and vegans, and that they love to be resources for questions that non-vegetarians may have about their choices.
“We aren’t interested in forcing our beliefs on anyone; like any other different perspective, we just want our ideas to be respected.”
Besides educating others on their beliefs, vegetarians and vegans expressed a desire to further improve food offered in the dining halls for their lifestyle.
“I think one thing that would be nice is if things were more clearly labeled,” said Walters. He stated that often foods such as bread, bagels or vegetables can be ambiguous as to whether or not they are vegan.
Walters suggested having “more options and making sure that they’re done well.” By paying closer attention to whether or not a certain food can be eaten by vegans, more vegans will be able to eat it. One practical way is not covering some foods in cheese, which vegans can’t eat because it’s an animal product.
“I think a lot of people think that we’re extremists and we’re only going to eat food that tastes like dirt,” said Blizzard. “We like to eat normal food too. When we can, we don’t like to have crazy additives or replacements or substitutes in our food.”
Just like their meat-eating peers, vegetarians and vegans feel discontented at times with what the dining halls offer. But given their even more limited selection and continued optimism for making things better, maybe they have something to teach those who complain while having more choice of what to eat.