To Eat Sustainably
Results from student survey reflect desire for improvement in vegetarian and vegan options, suggesting that Harvard may be precluding itself from encouraging sustainable eating habits
By MARISSA GARCIA
It was the end of the season, and a Harvard athlete on the women’s swim team was seeing a steep decline in her performance. She was not sure as to why. Suddenly she was unable to complete her practices—she would quickly collapse from the exertion. As a vegetarian for a year, she soon discovered that her ferritin levels were below 10. Ferritin is a protein assessed by doctors to determine patients’ iron levels; animal-products are a standard source of iron, so it is often the quest of vegetarians and vegans to ensure they are nutritionally attaining enough iron through alternative sources, which can be consumed in salad greens and legumes. Normal ranges for iron levels can vary greatly, but for this athlete personally, her iron levels should have been at a minimum of 25, and, in order to be competitive, at a minimum of 50. Though she is no longer vegetarian to accommodate for this, she strives to go vegan after her time at Harvard to make up for her deepened environmental footprint from her less sustainable food intake in college.
Harvard University has recognized this increasingly prevalent sense of civic duty amongst its students to experiment and commit to sustainable diets and accordingly released a Sustainable and Healthful Food Standards Plan in April 2019, detailing a mission for meticulous selection of local food with lower carbon footprints, an emphasis on the nutritional well-being of the people they serve, and a reduction in food waste. This plan is intended to appertain to the many dining subsets comprising Harvard University, including the Restaurants Associates (serving Harvard Medical School, Harvard Law School, Harvard Business School, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design), Rebecca’s Cafe (Harvard Graduate School of Education), Jules Catering (serving Harvard Divinity School), Clover Food Lab (serving the Science Center), and finally, the Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS), which predominantly serves the undergraduate community.
Though this Food Standards Plan was only recently initiated within the past month, HUDS has demonstrated in its history a trend of sustainable actions. A significant percentage of their budget is spent on locally produced goods, which originate from 250 local farms. In order to optimize the amount of food that is gathered locally, HUDS rotates its menu items based upon the produce currently in season within the New England region. Prioritizing purchases from farms in close proximity has not only bolstered the economies of local communities, reducing the externality of transactions and therein augmenting human capital, but has also decreased carbon emissions ascribed to food acquisition. In fact, the Green Restaurant Association has ranked Harvard’s undergraduate dining halls as 2- and 3-star Certified Green Restaurants, with the single 2-star rating belonging to Adams House. These rankings are based upon the metrics of water efficiency, waste reduction and recycling, sustainable durable goods and building materials, sustainable food, energy, environmentally preferable disposables, chemical and pollution reduction, and transparency and education. Many of these accolades are upheld by a surveyed sample of Harvard undergraduates; out of 120 responses to a Dietary Lifestyles survey distributed by the Harvard Independent, 88.4% of respondents ranked their satisfaction with HUDS’ tackling of environmental food industry issues as a 3 or higher (on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest satisfaction). Respondents expressed appreciation that ranged from making alternative-meat options more prevalent (“I love Beyond burgers!! Has radically transformed my go-to grille order and I never got a hamburger again”) to often ensuring that there is “good educational value” in their menu curation, such as through their Plant Protein initiative.
Although HUDS has made these operationally sustainable gestures, there has yet to be a public, formal measure evaluating the quality of its food for those strictly on plant-based diets and how the present offerings impact the undergraduates who consider these dishes as their main sustenance. Within the Green Restaurant Association’s ranking for Certified Green Restaurants, the only metric under which this would have been appraised would have been ‘Sustainable Food.’ This overall classification is broken down into 51 categories, which are each assigned a point-value equal to their potential to be positively impactful toward the environment; the more sustainable the categories, the higher the associated point value. These points are then awarded to the dining hall upon meeting that criterion. At present, three of these categories evaluate vegetarian or vegan dining offerings (“At least one vegetarian entree,” “% of main dishes that are vegan,” and “% of main dishes that are vegetarian”), with the vegan dish category allocated 100 possible points. The only other category with a higher potential point value is having a fully solar-powered restaurant, at 333.5 points. These standards, however, as they currently stand merely judge the presence of the entree, leaving HUDS with no formal measure for the nutritional quality of these plant-based dishes.
Overall, in a broader comparison to other Ivy League undergraduate institutions, Harvard is not a leading institution in the quality of its vegetarian and vegan dining options. According to the report cards from PETA, Princeton, Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, and Dartmouth have A+ Ratings in accommodating for vegans. Yale has a Rating of A, whereas Cornell, Columbia, and Harvard all have B Ratings. Amongst these bottom three, Harvard has the lowest Student Satisfaction score, another metric used by Peta that gathers ratings and reviews from current undergraduates, at 56%, relative to Columbia’s 67% and Cornell’s 91%. When students were asked, “How do you feel about HUDS food in general?” on a scale of 1 to 5, vegetarians and vegans, on average, responded with a 3.14 ranking, indicating just above basal satisfaction.
By beginning the Plant Protein initiative in Fall 2018, HUDS introduced its first recent consistent offering at every meal that is based upon plant-protein. With heavy signage within dining halls, their educational efforts are evident, though one first-year student who identifies as pescatarian thought there could be even higher communicative clarity regarding, “how much of the plant protein counts as a serving of protein.” Amongst surveyed Harvard undergraduates, mixed opinions persist regarding the Plant Protein initiative intended to deliberately appeal to those pursuing plant-based dietary lifestyles, despite 44% of respondents identifying as currently vegetarian/vegan. A student, who currently identifies as vegan, commented, “I think [the plant protein initiative] is absolutely great for environmental, nutritional, and ethical reasons. However, sometimes it seems like HUDS runs out of inspiration, I do not specifically consider rice with beans an especially high plant protein dish, for example.” This student was not inaccurate in their suppositions of the protein content in the rice and beans dish; in a nutritional analysis of two weeks worth of Plant Protein offerings, the “Black Beans and Rice” dish has only 2.2g of protein—amongst the smallest of quantities of protein in any standard 4oz serving of plant protein, comparatively. Amongst other nutrient-poor Plant Protein offerings are the “Cannelini Beans w/ Lemon & Spinach” dish, with only 2g of protein per 4oz serving, and the “Black Eye Pea & Cilantro” with only 2.4g of protein. All nutritional information was extracted from the HUDS website.
Recently introduced meat-alternatives on the HUDS menu demonstrates efforts being undertaken to accommodate vegetarian lifestyles. For example, HUDS has incorporated seitan, an alternative soy-protein source, into their Seitan Tostadas dish, packed with 20.9g of protein per taco, and the Seitan pepper Drizzle, packed with 20.7g of protein per 8oz. They have additionally innovated a meatball alternative made out of eggplant, and was even documented by one respondent to the survey as a favorite dish; however, it still does not qualify as vegan and only has 4.8g of protein per 4oz serving. Vegetarian and vegan offerings are often unequal nutritionally, in terms of protein content. Certain vegetarian entrees have strikingly low quantities of protein per the recommended serving size. For example, the entree “White Bean Stew” has only 2.2g, “Stuffed Peppers w/ Beans & Rice” only 2.3g, and the “Portobello Mushroom with Quinoa Stuffing” only 2.5g. On average, across 45 vegetarian meals, the average 5.5oz serving had only 10.11g of protein. In comparison to 25 meals containing meat, the average 5.4oz serving had 21.81g of protein. Though it varies per individual, the recommended protein intake tends to be 50g consumed daily.
Though these nutritional disparities may not seem significant—after all, those who choose to be vegetarian and vegan are fully understanding of the inevitable challenges that come with this choice of dietary lifestyle—college often marks a critical period of dietary transition. Students can elect to adopt any dietary lifestyles they so choose, now that they have freedom beyond the dietary lifestyle of their household. Of those surveyed, approximately 35.8% of respondents denoted college being the time in which they made the transition to their current dietary lifestyle. This data aligns with broader statistics calculated, such as a poll conducted through Dalhousie University’s professor Dr. Sylvain Charlebois. This revealed that Canadians under 35, in comparison to those older than 49, are three times more likely to identify as vegetarians or vegans.
Vegetarian and vegan lifestyles are a demographic increasing in prominence, particularly in the age group HUDS caters. Through a report published by VeganLife, Grubhub sees that students at Ivy League colleges are much more likely than students at other colleges to order vegetarian and vegan dinners. Yale is approximately 130% above the average in ordering meals corresponding to these dietary lifestyles, and Harvard trails right behind, with 86%. Ranking #4 is MIT at 53%, Ranking #6 is Boston University at 50%, and Ranking #9 is Brandeis University at 37%—the Greater Boston area seems to be a location with keen undergraduate interest in these dietary lifestyles. There is clear interest in the undergraduate student body to pursue these dietary lifestyles.
In fact, amongst students surveyed, in response to the question of “If HUDS were to add a vegan entree (and you don’t currently identify as vegan), how often would you be willing to incorporate it into your diet?”, only 8.3% students answered, “Not at all,” whereas 22.5% of respondents to this question expressed interest in incorporating the vegan offerings into every meal. Considering how vegans only comprised 10.8% of respondents, this was a significant increase. There is palpable interest currently existing amongst students in pursuing these sustainable diets, but there is futility in the facilitation; students are less willing to act upon their desires to go vegan due to institutional constraints.
One would anticipate Harvard, as a globally-acclaimed institution, to engage more of its students in pursuing sustainable diets by providing higher quality alternatives, especially in consideration of the high-impact potential of its graduates, with 8% of 2018 graduates pursuing governmental professions according to the Office of Career Services. After all, undergraduates are expressing clear interest in experimenting with new dietary lifestyles within the HUDS dining halls. When asked, “Would be willing to engage with new dietary lifestyles if HUDS had more options for those lifestyles?”, only 17.5% said “No.” 43.3% of respondents to the survey said “Yes” and 39.2% said “I would consider it.”
According to student surveys, the food in the dining hall, however, is failing in engaging this crowd which is willing and ready to take initiative. There are subtle lapses in the execution, such as the placement of food within the servery. One survey respondent, who identifies as vegan, wrote that “…[placement] does probably create more meat consumption overall because people tend to take stuff that’s right in front of them in the line.” Another respondent, who identifies as vegan, spoke to how the placement of food dishes in the servery directly impacts the lack of appeal in vegan options: “Meat items are placed in such a way that they seem to be the entree. If you don’t eat meat, it feels like you’re just taking multiple side dishes.” Another respondent, who identifies as vegetarian, critiqued the efficacy of the Plant Protein initiative in encouraging sustainable diets, particularly in regards to its current placement in the servery not accurately highlighting the sustainable dishes: “…this campaign has yet to expand the visibility of vegetarian or vegan food options—many of which are already afterthoughts, and are frequently relegated to the back end of the serving line—and has therefore not increased the accessibility of healthier or more sustainable dietary lifestyles in the Houses.” This same student later wrote, “By improving the placement, appearance, and general quality of vegan and vegetarian food options, HUDS could empower students to learn about (and hopefully begin to habituate to) more sustainable choices with respect to their dietary lifestyles.” To summarize, another respondent, currently identifying as vegetarian, concluded, “…the options don’t make me want to become vegan.”
In addition to the lack of appeal in pursuing vegetarian and vegan dietary lifestyles within the dining halls, some upperclassmen also face challenges of inaccessibility to adequate vegetarian vegan food, particularly at lunch time. The new class schedule, implemented in the 2018-2019 academic year, often inhibits many upperclassmen from returning to their dining halls to eat lunch, such as when they have back-to-back 12:00-1:15pm and 1:15-2:45pm class times. This resorts in them getting lunch at Fly-By if the line does not outlast their break between classes. The options, however, remain relatively similar every day, with pre-packaged sandwiches, soups, chili, and snacks, and considering how some students have to utilize this option multiple times a week, these options lack in quality and sufficient nutrients. One survey respondent, currently vegan, urged HUDS to “[make] lunch more vegan friendly. The only vegan bagged lunch options there are, are hummus & pretzel chips, and PB&J sandwich, both quite unhealthy…”
A reprieve from FlyBy for a vegetarian or vegan rushing between classes near the Science Center used to reside in Greenhouse Cafe, whereat students could buy lunch using their Board Plus, money that Harvard loads onto students’ ID cards for the purpose of being spent in on-campus cafes for moments exactly like this. However, Greenhouse Cafe has since been replaced with Clover Food Lab. Clover prides itself on its mission of offering sustainable food that not only accommodates vegan and vegetarian diets but that also draws in people who may have never considered this type of cuisine before: CEO Ayr Muir wrote about their controversial introduction of the Impossible Meatball Sandwich to the menu, “Clover’s mission is to make meat lovers into vegetable lovers… it’s why 94% of our customers are not vegetarian.” By incorporating Clover within the Science Center, Harvard can almost use it as a token for engaging its university population in sustainable diets; this particular Impossible Meatball Sandwich, however, costs, after the inclusion of tax, just under $15, a price considerably higher than their other sandwich prices likely due to the cost of including Impossible Meat. Clover’s other affordable sandwich options, depending on the season, include the Chickpea Fritter, Egg and Eggplant, and BBQ Seitan, which are each just under $10 after tax. For an undergraduate who would consistently prefer these healthier, more diverse options over the present vegan/vegetarian offerings at FlyBy (which now is often too crowded between classes), however, this could become a compounded cost to pay without the supplement of Board Plus, and the dining hall still retains its less nutritional plant-based offerings. A respondent astutely observed, “Through its partnerships with businesses such as Clover and Whole Heart Provisions, Harvard likes to showcase the importance of healthy and environmentally conscious dietary lifestyles to the outside world. Why can’t Harvard do the same for its students in its own dining halls?”
Though Harvard has ostensibly dedicated itself to noble sustainability goals in its food services, it has thus far focused on establishing metrics that can be generalized across all of its dining subsets, when special attention should be directed toward HUDS. A more effective metric should be developed to more adequately assess the nutritional quality of vegetarian and vegan options that extends beyond topical presence. Harvard carries a powerful role to engage its undergraduates to inspire their pursuit of more sustainable dietary lifestyles, whether it be through the tool of more nutritious and exciting dining offerings or of more accessible vegetarian and vegan options while not in the dining halls. The effects of this could be dramatically amplified within society in the years to come, in an age of climate change largely attributed to carbon emissions from the food industry, as alumni advocate for sustainable diets on the world stage.
Marissa Garcia ‘21 (firstname.lastname@example.org) considers dynamics between the food industry and climate change to be rampant and anticipates seeing how colleges across the US attain successes to both ends through their dining services.
Edited June 17, 2019: A previous version of this article lacked certain numerical figures for both the Green Restaurant Association and the Clover Food Lab, which have since been added as supplementary information to more comprehensively portray the GreenPoints system and Clover pricing.