Burk | Plant-based meals shouldn’t be an afterthought

Opinion by Camden Burk
May 20, 2024, 12:16 a.m.

Recently, I grabbed dinner at Arillaga. The special was chicken fried rice. Being pescetarian, but a big fan of fried rice, I went in for a closer look to see if any alternatives were available. Unfortunately, there was only chicken. Annoyed and disappointed, I continued my inspection of the main counter to find a beef entree, and then a lamb entree, and finally, a large bowl of plain-looking tofu at the very end of the counter. This is not uncommon at Stanford dining halls — meat is always centered on menus and given the best preparation, particularly for specials — but I think this time stood out to me because of how easily it could have been remedied: Why not simply prepare portions without chicken? 

In the current system, plant-based meals appear to be an afterthought, and are given much less care than meat-based options. Unfortunately, meat has much larger environmental impacts, especially beef and lamb. This includes significant embodied emissions, with beef producing over 20 times the emissions from the same quantity of tofu (and 6-7 times those from pork, chicken, or fish). The meat industry also occupies huge amounts of space. Currently, agriculture occupies half of the planet’s habitable land, a truly staggering amount; if the world switched to fully plant-based diets, we would decrease that footprint by 75%

To meet its climate commitments, Stanford will have to reduce its purchasing of meat. In fact, R&DE is already aiming to reduce its scope 3 emissions from food purchases by 25% from a 2019 baseline by 2030. This will be done through a reduction in meat and dairy across dining halls. However, this will only result in backlash if the meat alternatives offered don’t improve. 

A sizable portion of campus likely already abstains from meat to some extent or another. According to statistica, as of 2023, 5% of the U.S. is pescetarian, 5% vegetarian and another 4% is vegan. That is around 14% of the national population that does not eat meat. These numbers are likely even higher within our age group. For these groups, non-meat options should be appealing and available so Stanford can be an easy place to continue this lifestyle. People shouldn’t feel like they are missing out because of this choice. 

This article isn’t written for people like me, though — we’ll suffer through watery tofu if it’s the only option (though I will continue to publicly complain about it). Instead I’m writing this to encourage RD&E to support people who are on the fence, and considering a more plant-based diet. That means putting plant-based options on the main counters, right next to the meat-based entrees. It means ensuring a tasty-looking plant-based special is always available where specials are being served, so people have the choice. It means putting real effort into plant-based entrees so people are drawn to these options.

The salad bar should never be the only place to get a plant-based meal. Finally, wherever possible, dining halls should avoid direct meat substitutes like chick’n and instead put forward true plant-based options. These steps are not big ones, and they don’t force people to change their diets, they simply help bring plant-based options to the same level. If people are choosing plant-based options now, when alternatives are available, then it will be much easier to gradually decrease meat. 

College is a time of transitioning to life in the real world and food is a key part of that. The meals people eat in college will influence what they prepare and expect later in life. By making plant-based options desirable here, Stanford has a chance to encourage students to go on in their lives making plant-based meals as well. Just one meal a week more without meat, compounded over a lifetime, is an enormous environmental win. If students know what good plant-based food tastes like, and realize it doesn’t have to all be Chick’n and Tofu, it won’t even be a sacrifice. 

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