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It’s always on your mind. You do it three or four times a day — often with friends or one special person, sometimes alone. Sometimes it’s wonderful; other times, meh. At any rate, you need it to live.

No, I’m not talking about anything (too) sexual — I’m talking about eating. Nice cheesy fake-out, though, right?

While food and eating in college have been on my mind since my sister first taunted me about the Freshman 15, lately I can’t help but notice that the way that Penn students — and Americans in general — view food has been drastically changing over the last few years.

Vegetarianism, which has been around since the ancient Greeks, appears to be having a renaissance. Observers say the increase comes from people concerned about the environment and their personal health, not about the more-traditional animal ethics. According to Penn Vegetarian Society President and College sophomore Victor Galli, while “people have already come to decisions about how they feel about animal rights,” they’re still learning about the environmental and health reasons — including animal consumption’s links to various diseases and concern about hormones and pesticides in the products. People are thinking about why they eat what they eat. And if you haven’t started thinking about it too, you need to start now.

This re-examination of food is “definitely a cultural thing,” in part linked to our revived fascination with cooking and eating, said College senior Emma Morgenstern, founder and former editor of Penn Appetit. A celiac following a gluten-free diet, she said the restaurant and food industries are more attuned to alternative dietary needs than they were even 10 years ago. She noted the proliferation of foodie blogs and, for serious aficionados, the challenges inherent in creating delicious food under strict limitations, something that’s fueled popular TV shows like Top Chef.

But changes in thinking about the broader effects of food have also occurred. According to Galli, the scientific evidence against eating animal products has been mounting since the 1970s. One study in particular, called the “China Study,” was influential for linking animal consumption with conditions like heart disease and diabetes.

In the last few years, these connections have been promoted in popular culture. Books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food Matters and Eating Animals have helped people better understand the impact of food. The food industry’s effect on the environment can be devastating, and it’s something we’re only beginning to understand. According to the web site for the movie Food, Inc., factory-farmed food is often shipped over 1,500 miles; about 30,800 tons of greenhouse-gas emissions are caused by shipping food alone. And college students, who absorb media, trends and culture like sponges, have become deeply interested in the debate.

Because there isn’t a standard definition, it’s tough to count the number of vegetarians, but vegetarianism has clearly penetrated mainstream consciousness. A survey done last year by food-service consultants Technomic found that 25 percent of college students identified as vegetarians or vegan; a 2004 survey by Aramark, Penn’s former food-service provider, found that students, even if they weren’t vegan or vegetarian, wanted more vegan or vegetarian options — indicating that they could consider a switch. And when Penn made the switch earlier this year to Bon Appetit in its dining halls, its emphasis on sustainable, local food was one reason cited for the move.

I’ve abstained almost entirely from red meat for five years. My high school was downwind of a pig-processing plant, and insisting that I would not eat cow was an act of teenage rebellion in Iowa. Beyond that, though, I viewed vegetarianism as something only undertaken for religious reasons or out of animal-adoring martyrdom. Now, though, I’m seriously considering taking the next step, and refocusing my diet around local, organic produce. You need to, too. Alyssa Schwenk is a College senior from Ottumwa, Iowa. She is the former Editorial Page Editor of the DP and editor of The Report Card. Her e-mail address is That’s What Schwenk Said appears Mondays.

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