Considering that Cornell ranks as one of the greenest colleges in the nation, it comes as no surprise that being green here pertains to food and accessibility in plant-based lifestyles as well, especially in combination with our consistently high dining hall rankings. I transferred to Cornell this year from the University of Virginia, a university that’s widely known for its terrible food and limited options — upperclassmen often say that getting food poisoning from one of the dining halls is a rite of passage as a first-year student — so seeing fresh strawberries and well-cooked rice in the dining halls is still something of a small miracle. But as I navigate my way through West Campus dining halls, Trillium, Terrace and yes, even Okenshields, I realize my appreciation for Cornell’s food extends beyond the meals the University provides and into the accessibility and openness this community has for vegetarians and vegans alike.
I decided to become a vegetarian in August at the start of the school year for environmental reasons, but without a lot of proper thought or planning, I didn’t exactly know what I had committed to. Still, I felt that cutting out meat cold turkey in a completely new environment would be easier than trying to do the same at home. It didn’t mean I wouldn’t have any complications at all, though. What about those meat sweats everyone talks about? What if there weren’t enough options in the dining halls, and I’d be stuck eating lettuce for dinner? Would I give in to the craving for chicken wings and char siu pork? Would I even get the proper amount of nutrients every day to survive?
All my worries and fears dissipated when the first meal I had here — breakfast at Becker — contained tofu scramble presented in a gleaming silver tray. It wasn’t tasteless; rather, it was perfectly cooked — firm but still easy to chew — with hints of cayenne and tomato, so that it tasted less like scrambled eggs and more like a beef chili without the beans. As an introduction to the meatless options at Cornell, the tofu scramble definitely didn’t disappoint. I didn’t want to get my hopes up from just one dish, but after discovering that veggie burgers, meatless chicken, tofu and Seitan options, vegan chili and nutritional yeast can be found in nearly every dining establishment on campus, I have realized how lucky I am to attend a university that actively caters its meals to accommodate people with different diets.
This is a stark contrast to the experience my friends have had back at my old university, where being vegetarian is simply not an option. My best friend there was forced to briefly revert to a pescatarian diet due to the limited vegetarian options — besides the salad bar, there was nothing else that consistently provided fresh vegetables for her to eat. Molly Smullen ’21 shared similar experiences from her friends attending other universities, who couldn’t maintain a plant-based diet without compromising their own health. “And ultimately,” Molly noted, as a vegan here at Cornell herself, “It’s all about privilege. We’re really just privileged to be able to walk into any dining hall and enjoy so many options without having to try, and it’s something that I think we don’t recognize enough here.” And lucky we are indeed, as Molly and I chat about veganism and all that stems from it at Ten Forward, an exclusively vegan cafe in the Commons. We share a chocolate chip pumpkin bread scone from their huge selection of homemade baked goods (all of which has been amazing in portion, cost and flavor, and I wouldn’t have guessed it was all vegan) over conversation about how her parents felt about her transition into vegetarianism and, eventually, veganism.
“It was pretty easy because I feel like saying, ‘Oh, I’m not going to eat meat,’ is not as difficult, especially if you’re not vegetarian in any aspect, than to just say no to everything, so they were fine with it,” Molly said. “My mom is super supportive, and my little sister went vegetarian after I had been a vegetarian for about a year and a half, so it helped for things like Thanksgiving — we all went out and bought a fake meat roast for the occasion.”
I pose my own question: does your family ever worry that you might not be getting the right nutrients or enough of them? This has been something that both of my parents regularly mention to me, and at the beginning of my transition, I too became concerned about any adverse effects vegetarianism might have on my health.
Molly replied, “I don’t worry about that. And part of that is because I went vegetarian in high school, and I was young and wasn’t considering that aspect. I think it’s also interesting because people are often like, ‘Well what about this nutrient? And this nutrient?’ While I totally understand the concern, if you’re asking me, you better be asking everyone else… You can be a meat-eater and still have anemia — relax! I didn’t notice the transition from eating meat to not either; there was no difference in the way my body felt before or after.” I find myself agreeing because I had the same experience; as much as people discuss their post-diet changes — good or bad — I felt like my life was as normal as ever upon the transition. The only real difference I experienced was eating in accordance with my own values and feeling like I was working toward change.
Needless to say, I’ve found that the transition to vegetarianism at Cornell is incredibly easy, a realization that comes after much reflection and with immense gratitude. I don’t have to worry about whether or not I’ll go hungry to uphold my personal ideals in environmentalism, a privilege that vegans and vegetarians at other college campuses do not have. The fact that Cornell is so open to plant-based and locally sourced foods means that there also exists a supportive community of people who are striving for the same goals and opening up the conversation around making a difference individually, and I’ve found the student population to be very respectful overall of all different kinds of lifestyle choices. Nobody really bats an eye when you tell them you don’t eat meat, and aside from the occasional “what made you vegetarian?” query, I haven’t heard or been the subject of any negativity about my change. More often than not, it leads to rewarding conversations about how culture and background play into one’s lifestyle.
Before we go, I asked Molly one final, and arguably the most important, question: what are your favorite foods on campus? “Last year, RPCC did fried cauliflower rice, and I really, really liked that. Appel had vegan cake a couple times too — very good,” she said without hesitation. For me, the fried cauliflower and chia seed pudding in Rose are top notch. Seeing them in the dining hall makes me happy every time and really, isn’t that what good food should be about?