Opinion | Campus dining needs to embrace plant-based food

Chance Phillips, Contributing Columnist

We all want to be good people and we all want to help save the planet, but it seems like most people forget that come mealtime.

If you aren’t already vegetarian or vegan, you should consider eating more plant-based meals. It can be a difficult transition, but a plant-based diet has endless benefits. 

We all recognize that animals have emotions, that they dislike pain and prefer life over death. There’s a reason we’ve passed laws forbidding animal cruelty — laws that almost always have carve-outs to avoid protecting farm animals.

Our society has managed to classify farm animals as beings not deserving of any moral consideration, objectifying them before they are literally objectified and consumed. The level of abject cruelty factory farms subject hundreds of millions of animals to every year is without exaggeration hellish.

Animals are shredded alive in industrial grinders, live their entire lives without seeing sunlight, and are confined in cages so small they can’t even turn around.

If we can all agree it is fundamentally wrong to cause unnecessary suffering, then factory farms are one of the modern day’s greatest moral crimes. Despite this, refusing to participate is still an aberration, something that must be accommodated or even corrected.

For example, when a nine-year-old girl became emotionally attached to a goat she raised and refused to sell it to be butchered, fully grown adults felt justified in driving hundreds of miles to steal and slaughter a little girl’s pet.

Setting aside the moral arguments against eating meat, animal agriculture is an environmental disaster. The raising of livestock alone is responsible for 15% of greenhouse gas emissions.

The world shifting to plant-based diets would allow us to both reduce the amount of land dedicated to food production by 75% and reduce the amount of freshwater used annually by around 27%.

If you’re interested in being more environmentally conscious and causing less suffering, you should consider joining the UA Veg Club. Club president Megan Neville, a sophomore majoring in sport management, described it as a “student org for all the campus vegans, vegetarians and veg-curious.”

The Veg Club was originally called UA Vegan Voices until a couple informal polls this year revealed the club actually only had a handful of vegan members. 

Its vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian and pescatarian members cite a diverse range of ethical, environmental, health and personal reasons for their dietary choices. Many Veg Club members are also active members of the Environmental Council.

The Veg Club holds biweekly get-togethers for its members, usually potlucks or group trips to vegan restaurants, and their GroupMe is a forum to talk about everything plant-based eating in Tuscaloosa.

No one at their most recent potluck, an “Appetizers and Activities” themed picnic outside Lloyd Hall, was overly fond of Bama Dining’s vegetarian and vegan options. 

“I’d rather not eat than go to the dining hall,” Neville said.

One common complaint is the relative monotony and scarcity of vegetarian offerings at Fresh Foods, which includes an unending onslaught of baked sweet potatoes and watery hummus. 

Stuart Rachels, an associate professor of philosophy at the University, said the University should take into account ethical considerations when setting menus for UA dining options.

“We shouldn’t support or cooperate with animal cruelty in our business decisions just as we shouldn’t support slave labor, child labor, environmental mismanagement, gender-biased hiring practices, and so on,” Rachels said.

Luckily, despite Bama Dining’s insufficiencies, it is still easier than ever to eat ethically and sustainably.

Restaurants like the recently opened The Veganish Market (try their plant-based ice cream!) have made being vegetarian and vegan in Tuscaloosa much easier. The rise of plant-based meat companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, and their partnerships with fast food chains, means that making your favorite foods vegetarian or vegan is a cakewalk compared to just a few years ago.

For those wanting to try vegetarian and vegan food on-campus, the jackfruit and tempeh options at Sola in the Lakeside Dining Hall are a rare highlight. If you want to try cooking plant-based, the Publix on University Boulevard, just off-campus, has a decent selection of vegetarian and vegan products.

Neville suggested picking one meal, such as breakfast, lunch or dinner, to try plant-based first, and to focus on easy swaps for everyday food items, such as trading dairy milk for almond milk. 

Making these small individual changes are the first steps towards a better future, a future both more moral and more environmentally conscious. However, we should also follow students at other universities in pushing for the University and Bama Dining to emphasize plant-based options and provide healthy and varied choices for the entire student body.