Is Trinity doing enough to cater for vegan and vegetarian students?

Almost half of Irish people would consider switching to a vegan diet for environmental and ethical reasons

If you walk past the Bank of Ireland on College Green on a Saturday, you’ll pass posters of animals in horrendous conditions and several vegans handing out leaflets. DU Vegan Soc is going strong three years on and the contentious “Meat is Murder” motion managed to pass by a sparse couple of votes at the Phil Chamber Debate in August. Now these things don’t necessarily mark the victory in the moral war with meat consumers. What it does signify however, is the growing number of vegans and vegetarians in Trinity, for a variety of reasons. Chief among them, from the sounds of it is concern for the environment. But is Trinity doing enough to cater for vegan and vegetarian students, and furthermore, promote sustainability?

The vast majority of the scientific community agree that one of the most impactful actions you can take to combat climate change is to reduce your meat and dairy consumption. Note that the average global citizen produces 5 tonnes of carbon a year, that figure rising to 10 tonnes for the average citizen of the West. Plant based diets have the lowest impact on the environment, in terms not only of green-house gas emissions but also, land and water consumption. The Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IME) states that it requires between 5,000 and 20,000 liters of water to produce 1kg of meat whereas producing 1kg of wheat requires between 500 and 4,000 litres of water. This transition to an environmentally friendly diet is not only easier now but vital. 

 “I think in Ireland generally we’re at the stage where it is very easy to be vegetarian but quite difficult to be vegan…”  

According to an article in the Independent, almost half of Irish people would consider switching to a vegan diet for environmental and ethical reasons. And while only 37% would consider going completely cold turkey, seven in 10 people said they would consider including more vegan options in their diet a number of days a week. This is hardly surprising considering that every minute a football-field sized portion of the Amazon is burned and cleared for lumber and cattle ranches. With a growing number of vegans and vegetarians, gaps in the market to tailor options for these diets are being rapidly filled.

On the other hand, last year Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced in the Dáil that he was cutting back on his red meat consumption for his health, and to make some efforts towards living more sustainably. Many farmers immediately took umbrage at this ‘blatant attack’ on their livelihoods, and during protests outside a Cabinet meeting in Cork City Hall, the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) derided the Taoiseach with signs of “Where’s the Beef, Ya Vegan?” As though it was necessary, Varadkar has denied accusations of being a vegan, saying he is “very much an omnivore.” Suffice to say that not all of Irish society is not yet totally on board with the idea of veganism.

Most students admitted to sating their plant-based appetites off campus, rather than on it. Ciara Cassidy, a Senior Fresh Geography and Politics student says this is because “there are very limited options, and those that are available are kind of expensive.” Despite the fact that the Buttery advertises vegetarian and vegan options, one need only look to the trays of assorted meats, chips and beans to see that in fact the choice isn’t really all there. There is indeed a vegetarian curry, however if you want a hot vegan meal, you must ask specifically for it. And from the back of the kitchen, a plate of what a Buttery staff member described as “kind-of-like ratatouille” will appear. Unfortunately, you will not know this option exists unless you happen to ask about it, but even for those who do, it doesn’t prove an enticing enough bait. Amy Heatley, a member of Extinction Rebellion TCD says, “I think in Ireland generally we’re at the stage where it is very easy to be vegetarian but quite difficult to be vegan and a lot of industries are kind of jumping on the vegan bandwagon quite quickly and I think generally like as a country we’re progressing towards that quite well, but in Trinity I have not seen anything of the sort.”

Catering outlets both on and off campus differ in that, some are directly under Trinity College’s control, while others are operated by a third party provider. However, all areas are expected to provide Vegetarian and Vegan options to their customers, such as soup, salads and sandwiches. According to the Catering Department an increasing number of these are also Vegan options: “All of our banqueting and Commons and 1592 Restaurant food offers include vegetarian and vegan options on request. We are consistently reviewing customer demands and as we are noticing an increasing demand for Vegetarian and Vegan options, we are adjusting our menu accordingly while still mindful that there are still many customers that prefer a meat alternative!” 

 “It seems the issue here is that the food offered on campus, while tasty, is just under advertised”

Perhaps just as important as the food offered is how environmentally sustainable it is. In relation to sourcing of food, the catering department is bound by Office of Government Procurement regulations, running public tenders for suppliers of food. Thus it is a requirement and a criteria of success that food should be sourced as locally and as ethically as possible. In terms of related plastic waste, all delivery packaging is required to be minimised within the boundaries of food safety and returned back to the supplier.

Catering largely take their cue from the staff and student body, so their policies regarding food and thus waste are reflected by our habits. In terms of sustainability, Heatley believes “individualism isn’t going to get us over the line with regards to solving the climate and ecological crisis but I think it is good for people, for small and medium scale institutions, like food outlets on campus.” It can also seemingly encourage College “to help promote those kind of individual changes because I believe that it allows people to show that they are willing to change to a more sustainable lifestyle and I think showing that we are capable of that on smaller scales will encourage the kind of really large scale corporations and government to act.”

Perhaps the problem is that students simply do not avail of the options that Trinity provides. Trinity student Cúnla Morris says, “the problem is that veggie students often forget about the Buttery,” which is “an underrated resource. You don’t need to pop out and spend €5-10 in KC Peaches, you can get a decent enough meal for around €3-4.” It seems the issue here is that the food offered on campus, while tasty, is just under advertised. From the sounds of things there’s definitely still room for improvement and an opportunity for students, staff and societies to work with Trinity’s catering services to achieve it. Like Kevin Costner was told in ‘Field of Dreams’, “build it and they will come.”

The print version of this article incorrectly implied that Cúnla Morris was on Vegan Society committee. The online version was amended to correct this error.

Sean Gordon Dalton

Sean is a Deputy Features Editor at Trinity News