Over the past few years, sustainable eating lifestyles have become increasingly popular across the nation. On the forefront of this trend stand Sarah Lawrence students, who represent a sizeable sub-community of vegan and gluten-free eaters on campus. These lifestyles are celebrated and institutionalized, the prime example being the sustainable living cooperative Warren Green house.
In the past there has been a conception generated by vegan and gluten-free students that meal plans do not provide adequate options for complete nutrition. Vegan Hannah Rothpearl (’17) is just one dissatisfied customer: “I chose to go off meal plan mainly because I was afraid of not finding enough vegan options.” AVI Foodsystems has responded to increasing requests for more sustainable, vegan, and gluten-free options by implementing strategic menu changes and by planning larger structural changes to SLC Fresh for the future.
SLC Fresh Resident Director Lydia Becker has been working closely with Executive Chef Dan Tokarek to meet a rising demand for diverse eating choices based on personal dietary restrictions among students. Both were new to SLC this year and have spent the last semester familiarizing themselves with the community in order to properly meet its dietary needs. “It took Dan and I some weeks to get a really good feel for what students are really asking for. Sometimes, what students [are] asking for is not what we are hearing right away,” Becker said.
The biggest way that they are tackling these issues is through simplification of dishes to appeal to the widest group of dining hall visitors. Tokarek explained, “When I say simplify, I mean no more than ten ingredients per dish. By doing that, we’re minimizing cross contamination with wheat and animal products.”
Visitors to the Bates Dining Hall will notice that at each station there is always at least one vegetarian, if not vegan, option and also at least one gluten-free option. Many students have gleefully taken advantage of the gluten-free and vegan baked goods which now occupy the pastry cabinet at each meal. At the pub, there is an entire cooler dedicated to vegan and vegetarian options, in addition to the newly added Pho Bar which is entirely vegetarian and can be vegan depending on what ingredients are chosen. Hill 2 Go has an entire room with retail products that include vegan and gluten-free options.
Still, Becker and Tokarek admitted that the program has ways to go. Many of the changes that the AVI staff want to see are barred by mechanical restrictions—for example, there can be no vegan fried items at the pub because there is only one fryer. Installing a second fryer for vegan items would requires the addition of a second gas line and coordination with maintenance as well as the fire department and the City of Bronxville. Vegan dishes consist heavily of produce, which is hard to come by in the winter on the East Coast. Availability and distribution of fresh food that is up to AVI standards represents one of the dining team’s biggest challenges. Training food service staff to adequately prepare vegan and gluten-free options is another roadblock to progress.
Though happening slowly, these changes are coming and Becker insists that eventually students will see their options increase: “The set up is not great to be completely gluten-free or vegan, but we’re finding unique ways to do that.” One of the ways that they plan to do this is by working with more local vendors to have fresh products delivered to campus. SLC Fresh works with New York bake shops to get any vegan or gluten-free products that cannot be made in-house in the pastry cabinet.
Tokarek offered a broad vision for what sustainable dining options could look like down the road at SLC. These include expanded retail locations, such as Hill 2 Go, on campus, and perhaps even an entirely vegetarian deli. ”I want to see entire rooms of only vegan and vegetarian options,” Tokarek said. On the short term, students can expect to see fresh produce options increase as the weather grows warmer and the availability of those products increases. A proposed all-vegetarian dinner (tentatively titled ‘VegFest’) is in the works for later in the semester.
For now, vegan and gluten-free eaters will have the best chance of finding the widest diversity of options at Bates dining hall, which has the best mechanical set-up for providing it. “My favorite vegan item is our hummus,” Becker added. “We fry all of our chips in a specially dedicated vegan fryer. We have great guacamole right now too which is 100% vegan.” Tokarek has an affinity for tofu and seitan, and he takes great care in preparing flavorful dishes using those protein-rich ingredients.
The community has responded positively to menu changes by not responding at all. “No news is good news,” Tokarek said. “Students are much more likely to give feedback when they don’t like something than when they’re satisfied.” The best way that SLC students on meal plan with dietary restrictions can see changes made is by providing feedback to AVI, be it via e-mail, comment cards, or surveys. According to Becker, feedback thus far has included almost no complaints, just requests for additions. Food service staff has been able to make over half of all of the requested additions to dining options happen.
You can follow @SLCFresh on Instagram for daily updates on new dishes and dining hall events, and submit your own feedback to AVI via their online feedback form here http://www.aviserves.com/slc/share-your-experience.html
By Wade Wallerstein ’17