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May 5, 2021

Davidson College expands plant-based dining options

A new partnership with the Humane Society of the United States will make 40 percent of dining hall meals plant-based

Students at Davidson College’s campus dining room, which is increasing its plant-based options for students. Photo courtesy

When Pinky Varghese joined Davidson College as director of dining in 2019, he heard from students that it could be tough to navigate food restrictions at Vail Commons, the campus dining hall. He decided to try it for himself. For three months, he ate a vegan diet on campus — and ran into the same obstacles the students described.

“It was quite challenging for a person who didn’t know what was going on,” he says. “If you don’t know what the ingredients are, it is difficult.” He invited a few stakeholders, including campus chefs, a staff dietician, and the school’s director of sustainability, Yancey Fouché, to a meal in the dining hall and asked, “How can we figure this out?”

One result of that conversation is a new partnership between Davidson and the Humane Society of the United States to increase the number of plant-based options at campus dining facilities. Nearly half of the meals served at Vail Commons will be plant based, which goes hand-in-hand with a commitment to cut back purchases of animal products by 10 percent. 

Pinky Varghese is leading the push for more plant-based dining options on campus. Photo courtesy

Before coming to Davidson, Varghese had contacts at HSUS, who taught him the potential of ingredients like aquafaba — the liquid from a can of chickpeas — an increasingly popular replacement for eggs in baked goods and cocktails. Now, the organization’s food service innovation team will consult Davidson on how to make flavorful, globally inspired vegetarian and vegan recipes, largely with ingredients the school already sources. Rather than pivot to artificial meat products like Beyond Beef, the dining program will focus on fresh, vegetable-forward dishes, and the team is analyzing its offerings and making substitutions to ensure that both animal and plant-based proteins are available. The move is not intended as a step toward eliminating meat altogether but creating an inclusive space for a diverse student body. 

“Anybody who comes into the dining place,” Varghese says, “should be able to eat a good meal and have a great experience.”

Davidson’s shift reflects a national trend toward sustainable, climate-friendly food. Last year, roughly one in four Americans reported that they’d incorporated more plant-based meals into their diet. In April, food website Epicurious announced it would no longer feature beef on the site or in new recipes, a move it said was “not anti-beef but pro-planet.” Beef production accounts for 61 percent of the agricultural industry’s greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s not the only culprit: It takes 10 times more fossil fuel to produce one calorie of animal protein than it does to produce the same amount of plant protein.

As director of sustainability, much of Fouché’s work to adapt Davidson to the warming planet is invisible to students. In fact, food doesn’t figure in the 10-year action plan she’s developing now because it’s not one of the institution’s biggest contributors to climate change. But adopting a more plant-based diet is one of the most meaningful steps individuals can take to reduce their carbon footprint, and Fouché believes the new dining options will help raise awareness and engagement around her mission on campus and beyond: “If they are going out into the world with more responsible behaviors and deeper awareness and consciousness of interconnections and how their daily lives affect the world, then we’ve done our job.”

Davidson College is working to serve more plant-based dishes without relying on processed meat alternatives. Photo courtesy

Davidson was well equipped to implement an industry-leading approach to sustainable food options because the small college runs its own dining program, rather than outsourcing the management to a company like Aramark or Sodexo. This independence encourages flexibility and the ability to adapt relatively quickly to the changing food landscape. The dining hall can serve produce grown at the on-campus farm, for example, and work to source humanely raised meat. Varghese reels off a list of plant milks that are now available in addition to cow’s milk at the dining hall and on-campus market.

“The one which really shocked me was the oat milk,” he says. “Oh, my God! Students, when we put it in the market, they’re buying containers — they like it!”

While the welfare of the planet played a big part in the college’s new direction, the well-being of each of the school’s roughly 2,000 students was top of mind, too. This year, Fouché is hosting a freshman exchange student from Pakistan, who eats a vegan and gluten-free diet. Now, she can pick up options from the dining hall’s dedicated plant-centric station, which students dubbed the Power Plant. She often tells Fouché how glad she is to find a range of options that meet her needs.

“My goal is very simple,” Varghese says. “Anybody who comes to the college must have a great college experience, and food is an important aspect of it.”


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