The Unsavory Reality of Being Vegan at Pitt

It was a bleak winter evening, and after a long, stressful day, I was ready to head over to Pitt’s “Eatery” to get some food with friends. While I was getting my drink, my friends had already come back with their food: cheeseburgers, pizza, fettuccine alfredo with chicken — the whole nine yards. Hearing that there was a vegan station for students like myself, I made my way over, only to find three humble dishes of beans cooked in tomato sauce, brown rice with raisins, and sweet cauliflower (do not get me started on this one). 

The Eatery, Pitt’s main dining hall.

The truth is that while Pitt prides itself on being an environment of inclusion and diversity, one place where it seems to be falling behind is its food. For years, Pitt has been struggling to address the needs of those with dietary restrictions. This is especially true for those who adhere to a plant-based or vegan diet, where at times, options are either too expensive, of poor quality, or nutritionally inadequate. Regardless of what I might say, I am not the only one who feels this way.

James Lane, a freshman studying finance, who is also vegan, says that Pitt’s vegan food “would make for a great weight-loss program,” saying that “the vegan food at the dining hall is so bad, sometimes I just skip meals altogether.”

Lisandro Montalvo, a sophomore majoring in psychology who also trains in powerlifting, says that being vegan at Pitt is “damn-near impossible.” He adds, “I do not even rely on the meal plan because it is overpriced, the food is not good, and does not allow me to recover in time for my next powerlifting session … many times in the vegans section of the dining hall, there is not even an actual protein being served.” 

Breaking down the vegan options with on campus-dining at Pitt, it comes no surprise why students feel this way. In the Dining Hall, most of the sections serve very basic, stripped down versions of more complete meals. Take a look through the Pitt Vegan Masterlist online, and you will find that as a vegan, your options are pretty limited. You can usually choose from one of five things: pasta with marinara sauce, a hummus wrap with vegetables, french fries, a vegetable sandwich with ketchup and mustard, and the infamous veggie burger.

These options at first glance, may seem substantial and “pretty good for a vegan.” However, when these meals dominate what you are eating for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, they simply get monotonous. These “options” also tend to be low in calories, protein, and certain essential vitamins and minerals, but it does not need to be this way.

For example, at the Chipotle down the road from The Eatery, you can get a burrito with guacamole, sofritas (a plant based protein), black and pinto beans, salsa, and rice — a far more complete meal, than the $15 bag of “beyond meat chicken tenders” in Market to Go and Forbes Street Market (a purchase that would usually cost you $5.99 at whole foods). 

I took my concerns to Resident Student Association President Danielle Obisie-Orlu to gain further insight on how the university was accommodating vegan students. What I thought would be an innovative, enthusiastic response to this issue was underwhelming to say the least. The answer essentially followed the lines of “The Dining Task Force has been working closely with those in charge to make students’ voices heard,” yet there was no mention of anything being done. This statement becomes even more egregious when you consider that vegan meals can be made nutritionally adequate and affordable with the littlest bit of effort. 

To gain some inspiration into how vegan cooking can be made easy and affordable I took a trip to “All India,” an Indian restaurant in Shadyside. It was another long day for chef Harshat Bhavishyajot, who was rolling out rotis and parathas for the night’s dinner service.

The kitchen itself was haphazardly decorated with the smells of 30 different spices, ranging from fenugreek seeds to Garam Masala, and in some miraculous way was able to support the relentless stream of uber-eats and Grubhub orders despite its humble size. When I interviewed chef Bhavishyajot, he was managing several pans, pots, and a whole tandoori oven — a daunting task that was made to seem less serious by the smirk hidden behind his thick, black mustache.

*A platter of different vegetarian/vegan dishes served at All India in Pittsburgh, PA

When I asked about making vegan food and whether or not it was difficult, he said: “No, no, no, it is really quite easy, we simply replace any non-veg ingredients with vegan.” He then pointed at a tray of Sooji Halwa, a semolina pudding dessert native to his home region of Punjab, and said “this dessert is usually made with ghee, but we just replace it with sesame oil. It is very simple and very good.”

The Golden Temple in Amritsar, India that serves more than 100,000 people a free vegetarian lunch every day

He then explained that in the Sikh regions of Northern India, many dishes are already made vegetarian, and combine different plant based ingredients like chickpeas, potatoes, cauliflower, spinach, dhal (lentils), peas, and more. When I asked him how expensive the dishes were to prepare, he said “very cheap, almost free.” To elaborate on his point, a student can get an order of samosas, chana masala, and two large pieces of roti for under $15.

The truth is providing delicious vegan options that cover a student’s nutritional bases is not an ambitious pursuit, and has been done all over the world for thousands of years.

Whether you are vegan, or vegetarian for ethical, health, or religious reasons, it is time that we give all Pitt students healthy, reasonable food.

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