A dietary dilemma: The struggles of a vegan lifestyle on campus

Students express concerns over Campus Dining & Shops vegan options


Cesar Ramirez went four years without consuming dairy. He believes the industry is destroying the planet and abusing cows.

But after one week at UB, the freshman was eating cheese pizza.

“There was a time when I realized that if I didn’t eat dairy, I was going to starve,” Ramirez said. “I didn’t see any other options at first. I started eating pizza for a bit, but at some point I did regain my strength and self-control to stop that.”

Ramirez, a biochemical engineering major, became an ovo-vegetarian four years ago, avoiding all animal products, except eggs, for most of high school.

But that changed when he came to UB.

He sacrificed his dietary lifestyle because of what he called the “lack of options” at UB’s Crossroads Culinary Center, or C3.

“This shouldn’t happen at a school as big as UB,” Ramirez said. “They say this is a very diverse school and I’m sure they’re taking into account the number of people from various different ethnic backgrounds. But they’re not taking into account the people with various different diet needs.

“What if there’s someone who can’t have any dairy due to allergies? What are they going to do when they walk into the dining hall and their only option is rice?”

Ramirez isn’t the only one asking questions. Other vegan and vegetarian students are raising concerns about Campus Dining & Shops’ vegan options. Many students insist that UB’s dining halls lack substantial vegan choices, as UB does not offer an all-vegan station in any of the facilities. Several vegan students also believe that some products labeled vegan are not.

UB students gave the campus a 33 percent student satisfaction rating on PETA’s Vegan Report Card website. UB has an overall letter grade of “A” on the website, which was either decided by Campus Dining & Shops or a UB student correspondent. Still, the lower student satisfaction rating indicated that students found the options unsatisfactory. This may mean students don’t like the taste or don’t find the option satisfactory to their lifestyle, said Hannah Kinder, a PETA College Outreach Coordinator.

Kinder, who supervises the 1,400 schools PETA surveys, said when schools like UB are graded highly in terms of offerings, it’s still important to work to improve student satisfaction.

“We are simply looking to see if the schools have vegan options available to students, we are not rating their tastiness; however, students are able to say they are unsatisfied with the options available,” Kinder said. “Both of these serve to help direct schools in a positive direction. If our grade is low, they know where they can work to improve. If our grade is high but student satisfaction is low, there is still work to be done.”

Campus Dining & Shops still believes it has made “vast improvements” in vegan offerings, said Lori Bendersky, a registered dietician and the manager of Campus Dining & Shops’ Nutrition Program. Bendersky’s job entails providing guidance and education to students with special dietary needs.

“Our chefs have focused on increasing the amount of vegan options on campus based on student feedback,” Bendersky said.

Several vegan and vegetarian students are unsatisfied with these “improvements.”

Ramirez thinks that if Campus Dining & Shops expanded further upon its vegan options, UB would attract more students of different backgrounds.

“I’m sure UB could be made a lot better if we could just take into account those with different needs,” Ramirez said. “We all come here because of Buffalo’s positive energy and ‘leading the world into a more sustainable future.’ If UB gave better options to people like me who don’t eat meat, it would definitely be more popular to people in my community.”

Allie Ambrosio, sophomore health and human sciences major, has been vegetarian for 10 years and is deeply disappointed in UB’s food. She took on veganism in January and found it difficult on a meal plan.

Ambrosio now lives off campus and claims it’s a lot easier to cook her own meals.

“I feel like on campus we don’t have a lot of both healthy and sustainable options. If you’re going to get a salad or a smoothie that only fills you for so long,” Ambrosio said.

When Ambrosio lived on campus, she used her meal plan toward Moe’s, sushi and black bean burgers. She believes that being a vegan isn’t as difficult as critics claim, but that living on campus makes it harder.

Ambrosio shares Ramirez’s concerns regarding C3.

“When I would eat at C3, they had really great options sometimes,” Ambrosio. “Then other times it’s like ‘here’s a veggie burger with cheese on it already,’ ‘here’s grilled vegetables with parmesan on it,’ or ‘here’s plain pasta with cheese topped on it already.’”

She believes that if cheese and dairy products were optional additions rather than included as a default, C3’s Strictly Vegetarian station would help vegans.

Delaney Dupui, a junior exercise science major and vegan, agrees.

“A lot of times it’s just the cheese,” Dupui said. “There’s this thing they’d do at C3 with potatoes. They’d roast potatoes but they’d put cheese all over it. Literally I would eat the potatoes but they’re smothered in cheese. Just take the cheese off and put it on the side and then whoever wants cheese can just put cheese on it. It’s really a simple fix.”

When The Spectrum asked Campus Dining & Shops about consistency at C3 and brought up student concerns, Bendersky said she was open to the feedback.

“Our goal is to provide a daily vegan option in each of our dining centers. I will share this feedback with our management team at C3 to see how we can be more consistent with our vegan offerings,” Bendersky said.

Putting non-vegan ingredients on the side may be a short-term fix to what some vegan students perceive as a “lack of options,” but it’s not just a “lack of options” that is interfering with vegan lifestyles on campus.

Some students question if items marked vegan really are.

Makenzie Depetrillo, a senior health and human sciences major, made a New Year’s resolution to be vegan for environmental reasons.

She feels some options on campus are misrepresented and mistaken as “vegan” when they “really are not.”

Depetrillo uses Campus Dining & Shops’ NetNutrition website when ordering food on campus. The website provides users with the nutrition facts for each food item offered by Dining & Shops and also highlights which items apply to students with special dietary needs or lifestyle choices.

The website uses color-coded stickers to highlight which items are vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and “smart choice” products.

Depetrillo is most concerned with the Stackers Grill inside Putnam’s in the Student Union.

Stackers sells a veggie burger which is marketed as vegan.

The burger is in fact vegan; however both bun options were not, according to the NetNutrition website as of Oct. 27.

Unless the veggie burger is ordered without a bun, it is, or was, not vegan.

Depetrillo finds this misleading.

“[It would be better] even if they were like ‘vegan when ordered on a wrap,’ or ‘vegan when ordered on blank.’ Like you just shouldn’t label something as vegan if it’s going to come with something that isn’t. I feel like that’s just easy to fix.”

Other vegan students, like Dupui, are also concerned over the non-vegan buns on their advertised-vegan burgers.

Dupui thinks that not serving vegan buns with a vegan burger is “unfair.”

“Marketing a veggie burger or a black bean burger as vegan is so misleading when it really isn’t with the bun,” Dupui said. “People just don’t know. I know some people really would be upset about that if they found out ‘oh, I ate this. Why’d they tell me it was vegan when it’s not?’ People do look at [UB’s vegan labels] and take them seriously. It’s really easy to just look at a big menu and see that little green circle to know what you can eat. They really should be more clear.”

Campus Dining & Shops said it is aware of the concern.

“Sourcing vegan bread for a large scale food service operation like ourselves can sometimes be a challenge. Certain ingredients in bread, such as dough conditioners, can be derived from animals,” said Bendersky, who is manager of the NetNutrition website.

“The good news is that our distributer has recently switched suppliers who have verified that the hamburger roll does not contain any animal derived ingredients. This will soon be reflected on the NetNutrition website.”

Campus Dining & Shops added a vegan bun option at Stackers and put a vegan sticker on the new hamburger roll on the NetNutrition website sometime between Oct. 27 and Nov. 4.

This was not updated until The Spectrum informed them of student concerns.

Depetrillo is concerned about the legitimacy of other vegan foods as well.

“I feel like it’s very easy to modify a lot of the food that they have here. Just an example is in Pistachio’s. They have the sandwiches which are vegan and the pasta which is vegan, but then they cook it with butter. That’s the default,” Depetrillo said.

Depetrillo no longer visits Pistachio’s, as she “felt really bad” asking workers who she claimed were “annoyed” to use new pots when preparing her pasta. All pasta at Pistachio’s is listed as vegan on the NetNutrition website; however, Depetrillo said she is worried that workers incorporate butter when preparing dishes.

Bendersky said Campus Dining & Shops uses margarine, and not butter, when preparing pasta. She did not mention if the ingredient included animal product.

Depetrillo believes that if employees asked customers if they wanted possible non-vegan products in their pasta, the transaction would be smoother.

“There’s just very [small] things that they could do to tweak it just a little bit,” Depetrillo said. “It would make it a lot easier asking if somebody doesn’t want butter on it. It’s kind of misleading. Some students are really busy [and may not notice].”

Berdersky thinks that CDS staff is “very accommodating” and that students can request pasta without certain ingredients, although the pasta is already listed as a vegan product on the NetNutrition website.

“There is a standard operating procedure when preparing pasta at Pistachio’s that includes adding margarine, vegetable stock, salt and pepper which helps the sauce better adhere to the noodles and for flavor. We can certainly explore revising this procedure or finding better ways of communicating this to our customers,” Bendersky said.

Vegan and vegetarian students have also experienced meat accidentally winding up in their food products.

Hours before speaking to The Spectrum, Cesar Ramirez ordered a rice bowl at Guac and Roll in Ellicott, and found a stray piece of meat inside.

“I don’t want to point fingers because I understand that mistakes can be made. But I don’t get how in the world I ordered a rice bowl with no meat and I spot a piece of beef in it. It makes me feel bad. I feel like I’m cheating on myself, on my beliefs,” Ramirez said.

But Ramirez’s main concerns have to do with dining halls.

UB’s lack of an all-vegan station in any of its dining halls may contribute to its low student rating on PETA’s Vegan Report Card, Kinder said.

In the past year, Kinder claims that vegan dining stations more than doubled nationwide and vegan options are “seeing a massive increase.”

Schools like SUNY Plattsburgh, SUNY at Fredonia, and SUNY Buffalo State don’t offer all-vegan stations either, yet a few other neighboring schools do.

SUNY Oneonta, SUNY Geneseo, and SUNY New Paltz all promote all-vegan stations at dining halls, according to PETA’s Vegan Report Card.

New Paltz’s Hasbrouk Dining Hall offers “Simple Serving” options at a station that excludes milk, eggs, wheat, soy, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, and gluten. Its vegan station is separate from the vegetarian station.

“We offer a full hot entree with two sides each day for lunch and dinner. We offer vegan breakfast items, both hot and cold items,” said Ryan Goodwin, general manager of dining services at New Paltz. “We feel that we can meet any student’s needs with both the stations and selections we provide.”

UB currently does not have an all-vegan station at its dining halls, but it may be incorporating more vegan options in the future.

UB is planning the Global Market Café, an international dining hall that will be used as a “front door” to North Campus near Capen Hall and Norton. The project is expected to be completed in the spring semester of 2020, and will feature an array of international foods for students to choose from.

“I am very excited for the Global Market Café. It will be a new and unique food experience on campus,” Bendersky said.

“With our new international offerings, we want to make sure that we are meeting the dietary needs of all students including those who are vegan and vegetarian.”

SA President Leslie Veloz hopes that the project will incorporate more vegetarian and vegan options as well.

Veloz is a member of the Global Market Café planning committee.

“We [on the committee] constantly discuss how we will ensure that this new dining facility includes a wider range of vegan and vegetarian options,” Veloz said. “I have stressed the importance of having affordable and accommodating options for students. Students and staff reinforced that need in their surveys and at the feedback event Campus Dining & Shops held a few weeks ago. I am confident that this new dining facility will accommodate the needs of everyone on campus.”

Veloz said over 600 surveys were filled out by students and staff at the event and others like it, and she’s hoping to find more ways to increase student involvement in the project.

“I constantly encourage students to get engaged with the campus so that they can ensure their voices are heard. The planning committee and I are working on creating more avenues where students can continue to get engaged with this project,” Veloz said.

As for vegan options in general, Campus Dining & Shops is hoping to “cater to all students.”

“I hope we can continue to provide excellent vegan cuisine that is easily accessible in all of our dining units. Campus Dining & Shops is always looking to improve and expand our vegan offerings,” Bendersky said.

Still, PETA’s Kinder thinks that if students desire better vegan options on campus, then schools and students must work together.

“Schools with high satisfaction ratings take time to create vegan menus, rather than offering steamed veggies and rice or pasta for every single meal,” Kinder said.

“But this is often achieved from student vegan or animal rights groups pushing for these options to be better and actively pursuing change within dining. It’s definitely a group effort.”

Brenton Blanchet is an arts editor and can be reached at brenton.blanchet@ubspectrum.com.


Brenton J. Blanchet is the 2019-20 editor-in-chief of The Spectrum. His work has appeared in Billboard, Clash Magazine, DJBooth, PopCrush, The Face and more. Ask him about Mariah Carey.