My first thought after deciding to go vegan was “Yay! Wait, what about my mother’s macaroni-and cheese?” My second thought was, “What the hell am I going to eat at school?” As a senior at what’s considered one of the best Historically Black Colleges in the nation, I’ve watched the cafeteria go through its changes. I came in an omnivore freshman and had made the leap to vegetarianism by my third year. But I was a sad vegetarian. Constantly depressed over all of the things I couldn’t eat (curse you Soul Food Thursdays!) I “slipped” over and over again. Between junior and senior year I got serious about transitioning to veganism. But what to eat on campus during the many hours I’m there has remained one of my biggest frustrations.
The main issue has been the contradiction between my school cafeteria attempting to provide for vegans but not always understanding what vegan is. Foods are only labeled half of the time, and of that half they are mislabeled quite often. (But hey, labels with nutrition information are brand new and much appreciated when they’re right). Eating lunch often feels like navigating a minefield of hidden ingredients and employees who didn’t make the food and aren’t required to know what’s in it. I was beginning to lose hope that I’d ever be able to have a meal that consisted of more than french fries (made in an independent fryer) and salad. This was only compounded by the fact that during a visit to one of the predominantly white institutions the offerings in the cafeteria were a buffet spread compared to what I was used to. Given the alarming statistics of food-related illnesses in the black community it would seem that my school would want to be at the forefront of a nutrition overhaul, starting in its own cafeteria. I know that other schools can also have paltry offerings for vegans, and all schools aren’t like the one I visited, but it sometimes seems like my school is so far behind the times and I often wonder why.
But today, my HBCU cafeteria was serving pho (or some version of it, I’ve never actually had the real thing). The same cafeteria that just last year was essentially only serving pasta or beans and rice as vegan entrees. At the little soup station everything was clear before me: rice noodles, herbs, tofu, vegetables, and a vegetable broth! With ginger! The gentleman who assembled my soup was eager to know what a vegan was. He didn’t know the difference between vegan and vegetarian but said he would do more research. I explained what I do and don’t eat. And I came back for more of his soup. Because it was the most satisfying meal I’ve had in this cafeteria in the last 6 months. Maybe tomorrow he’ll have more questions. Maybe he’ll tell his coworkers and more will know that you can’t call broccoli slathered in cheddar sauce vegan. My school has come a long way from only serving beans and rice and even though I’m on my way out, I hope they continue to make healthy changes.