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2012 fall columnists Credit: Justin Cohen , Yessenia Gutierrez

Almost every time I tell someone I’m vegan, I’m asked: “Why?” and “What do you eat?”

The second question is a lot easier to answer. People are genuinely curious about what food choices are left once you remove animal flesh, eggs and dairy. No pizza, no cookies, no ice cream? No way!

Of course, people don’t immediately think of all the foods that are either vegan or can easily be made vegan. Many Chinese, Italian, Thai and Mexican dishes are fair game, including my personal favorite — Chipotle’s veggie bowl with black beans, no sour cream or cheese, but free guac!

Quakers are lucky to live in a place surrounded by vegan-friendly eateries. Places like Blackbird Pizzeria, Mood Cafe, HipCityVeg and Atiya Ola’s are all within reach. On campus, 1920 Commons and Houston Market offer a huge variety of vegan fare — from cookies to almond ice cream, lasagna and soy pudding.

People become vegan for many different reasons. My path to veganism began when I cut meat out of my diet in high school. I was already borderline anemic, so needless to say, my mother was not too thrilled. She was worried that my dietary changes would cause me to develop more health problems and I struggled to convince her of the contrary.

But this summer, I finally realized that the dairy and egg industries are just as disgusting.

Feel free to dismiss me as a big ole hippie, but I was repulsed by the amount of abuse animals have to endure to satisfy our taste buds.

College junior Elise Mitchell went through a similar struggle. Mitchell also became a vegetarian in high school, although for health reasons. She became a vegan last year but found the transition to vegetarianism harder. She attributes this to members of her meat-eating family who were frustrated by her decision. Once she came to college, however, she found it relatively easy to transition to a vegan diet.

Mitchell, who was already lactose-intolerant, turned to veganism after she participated in the Interfaith Dialogue residential program. She said she’d often end up sharing vegan meals with her hall mates to accommodate everyone’s dietary restrictions.

Since then, Mitchell has read up on veganism. Her appreciation for the diet extends beyond health benefits to include food justice and concerns about the environment and animal welfare. This year, Mitchell submitted a proposal for a new residential program — Food Politics, Health and Sustainability — which is still in the process of being approved.

Students in this residential program would work to address disparities in the variety and nutritional content of food available to individuals based on socioeconomic class. The program would also engage students in discussions about veganism as a viable solution to these problems. Mitchell expects all food at floor events to be vegan to accommodate dietary restrictions and to expose non-vegans to alternative options.

College junior Jose Romero’s foray into veganism began four years ago when he pledged to eliminate all animal products from his diet. He had already developed an aversion to meat and decided to go cold turkey during Lent. Except for a lapse during his first semester in college, Romero has kept a vegan diet.

Romero has also read extensively about veganism and is able to list numerous titles from memory. He views the diet as a way to challenge traditional modes of thinking about food justice food justice, health for a new america and culture defense of animals, asserting that veganism is “very much connected to these other issues.”

The vegan community at Penn is thriving. Although we’re a small minority, we’re creating dialogue around veganism and increasing options on and near campus.

The Penn Vegan Society, in particular, is a welcoming and encouraging community that is always willing to share information about veganism. To this end, PVS has started a vegan mentorship program, which pairs students who are interested in the diet with a vegan mentor whom they can ask questions and meet for meals. The society’s website also features an impressive wealth of information for fledgling vegans.

The key tenet of veganism is not to cast judgment on others, but to ensure that we are knowledgeable about the food served on our plates. With an issue as fundamental as food, we need to make informed decisions to avoid passively accepting the status quo.

Yessenia Gutierrez is a College junior from Hollywood, Fla. Her email address is “Yessi Can” appears every Monday. Follow her @yessiwrites.

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