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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The vegan kind of life

An examination of the difficulties of being a vegan at Brandeis

Published: March 7, 2008
Section: Features

the_hoot_3-07-08_page_06_image_0001.jpgIt’s 2 o’clock on a Monday. Lower Usdan and Sherman have just closed for lunch. But Emily Gelb ‘11 has only eaten a Luna bar, despite having woken up at 9:15 and gone to two classes.

Gelb, unlike a typical college student, hasn’t skipped a meal because she is pressed for time, or because she’s stressed, or even because she simply forgot to. Gelb hasn’t eaten because she is a vegan and therefore can’t eat most of the food provided in the University’s dining halls.

“I might eat dinner tonight,” she said, “but usually I only eat one meal a day in the dining halls here. Since I got here, I’m not a very good example of a healthy eater.”

Having been a vegetarian her entire life, Gelb decided to go vegan seven and a half years ago because of both environmental and animal-rights reasons. Veganism is a more extreme version of vegetarianism where one not only does not consume meat, but also does not consume animal products such as milk, eggs, or leathery clothing.

Gelb has been a vegetarian her entire life. So when she decided to go vegan, her mother, who is also a vegetarian, supported the idea, as long as Gelb made sure she still got the nutrition that she needed.

“It wasn’t like one day I woke up and was like 100 percent vegan,” she said. “It took an accumulation of research and cutting things out gradually—there’s a lot to cut out.”

For Gelb, being vegan at home was easy. Her family is vegetarian, so she could eat most of the food that her mother cooked for dinner.

“There were still temptations,” she said. “Like desserts—those are tough—because they’re so tempting. And ethnic food—my family’s Italian, so I can’t eat a lot of what we cook. Since my mom was vegetarian, she’d just leave off the cheese and we’d make it work.”

Once at Brandeis, however, it got more difficult.

“What about Brandeis?” she laughs, “well, I guess it could be worse, but there’s definitely not a lot. I need to make sure that I get the vitamins and protein that I need, and there isn’t a lot of variety.”

“Basically, you have veggie burgers, wraps, the salad and pasta bar, cereal and soy milk, and natures balance. Nature’s balance is the best, but then you have to eat the same thing for lunch and dinner, and they replace that with waffles on the weekend, which I can’t eat,” she said.

In fact it was due to the lack of variety that Gelb switched from the 10 meals a week meal plan to the 100 meals per semester meal plan because she was not using all of her meals.

“Well, I don’t think anyone gets their money’s worth because of the point system, but I would love to see more vegan options in the dining halls or the C-Store,” she said of the switch.

Gelb did say that if you know how to cook, being a vegan at Brandeis isn’t too difficult; however, with a full course load along with playing in Brandeis’ orchestra, Gelb often simply doesn’t have the time to make her own meals.

Gelb is just one of the estimated 30 or so vegans at Brandeis. Liza Behrendt ‘11 is another.

Behrendt has been a vegetarian since her fourth grade class went on a field trip to a farm when she was ten years old.

“I thought the pigs were so cute that I couldn’t possibly bear to eat them,” she said. “And then I gradually began to cut stuff out and learn about the whole animal rights thing and the environmental stuff, which of course, only made me glad that I wasn’t eating meat.”

When she arrived at Brandeis about six months ago, Behrendt decided to go vegan, and has found that, in some ways, being a vegan at Brandeis is easier than it is at home.

“Being vegan was something I always wanted to do but I thought it’d be a pain for my mom when I was eating her cooking. And then I heard that they had vegan options here so I thought I might start [being a vegan],” she said. “But I guess the options aren’t that great here.”

One thing about Brandeis dining that really bugs Behrendt is that while Sherman food is supposed to be labeled as vegan, vegetarian or meat, the labels are often wrong.

“A lot of times in Sherman I can’t even figure out what’s vegan and I get so frustrated—because their tofu is just horrible—and I end up just eating peanut-butter and jelly,” she said.

Also, Behrendt wishes that the soymilk in the C-store could count in a meal so that she could get cereal and soymilk for breakfast.

Executive Chef at Brandeis Dining Services, Mathew Thompson says that dining services has already made steps toward making Brandeis dining more vegan-friendly and is willing to listen to student suggestions.

“We recently revamped the entire Nature’s Balance menu. We now offer daily tempeh and seitan on our menu, cooked to order for freshness. In addition, there was a demand for a Vegan grab-and-go sandwich. This is now available at Java City, Usdan Café, Boulevard and C-Store. We’ve done quite a bit recently to stock ‘vegan meats,’ alternative protein sources, specialty whole grains, and soy based faux-dairy products,” he wrote in an email to The Hoot. “As new products become available to us, and student suggestions are made, we will continue to be responsive to the needs of students on campus.”

Thompson also explained that Natures Balance in Lower Usdan is closed on the weekends because the omelet and waffle stations are in such high demand that they require more staff maintenance.

Also, according to Thompson, nearly every station in the cafes has vegan options, and encourages vegans who are confused about the contents of a dish to ask the servers for assistance.

Yet while Behrendt has been able to successfully make the switch from vegetarian to vegan since coming to Brandeis, Maia Stamieszkin ’11 has had to do the exact opposite.

Stamieszkin originally went directly from carnivore to vegan a few years ago when, after taking a long walk in the woods to think about her decision, she “just cut everything out cold turkey.”

When Stamieszkin came to Brandeis and joined the crew team, however, she realized that she could not get the protein that she needed to exercise everyday from the food served at Brandeis.

“All I could eat was peanut butter, beans, rice and salad. And that’s not enough for crew,” she said.

Stamieszkin decided to revert back to vegetarianism.

“I know that I need to hold my health above everything else, but moralistically this feels like crap,” she said. “I feel like I gave up the fight.”