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UW-Madison dining services work to accommodate vegan, vegetarian students

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is attempting to fully accommodate vegan and vegetarian diets across campus dining halls, though some students say options are limited.

As plant-based diets are becoming increasingly popular around the nation, University of Wisconsin-Madison dining services are working to provide a more inclusive menu for students with these dietary restrictions.

Within the last 15 years, the popularity of vegetarian, vegan and flexitarian diets has only increased. This growth includes a rise in popularity at colleges and universities. 

UW-Madison took this task head-on. Agnes Sherman, a dietitian for the university dining halls, explained the vegan and vegetarian options offered by the dining services, and their plans for expanding their menu.

“We are running at about 20% of our menus geared to being vegan and/or vegetarian,” Sherman said. “The standard guidance to our unit chefs that have to develop these menus is every venue should have some sort of vegan and/or vegetarian option.”

The dining halls around campus currently offer a variety of plant-based options. These options range from organic options to processed plant-based meat products, including Beyond Meat burgers and brats, Morning Star vegetarian breakfast sausages and some Dr. Praeger items.

The menu at the university's dining halls currently runs on a four-week rotation at every location, and offers vegan and vegetarian options. The chefs have creative freedom to design the menu, but items must be able to be produced on a large scale.

While the UW-Madison dining hall staff works to extend their menu, Carly Robbins, a vegan student, felt that her options were limited in the dining halls her freshman year. 

“The dining hall always had options, but they were pretty repetitive and there wasn’t a lot of them,” Robbins explained. “Probably only two or three.”

Although her options were limited, Robbins appreciated the effort she saw from dining hall workers. She understood the limited number of options due to the percentage of vegan students compared to those that are not. 

“I try to look at the offerings places have relative to the percentage of the population that makes that lifestyle choice, so I think that for the number of students that are vegan, I understand why they had the limited options.” Robbins said. 

UW-Madison dining offers a vegan focus group that allows students to provide feedback to dining hall staff about menu options they enjoyed or recommendations for dishes that could be implemented.

“It’s an open-door policy. We have some food items to test or some new products to test,” Sherman explained. “It’s really just a way for [students] to try new things and give us feedback on existing things. It’s good information for us to take back on how we can do better.”

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Although UW-Madison dining services continue to try and provide more vegan and vegetarian options, some students continue to face problems with the menu options available.

Maria Lianos, an incoming sophomore who lived in the dorms this past year, recently went vegetarian for the first time. She underscored the struggles she experienced with on-campus dining.

“[Memorial Union] has one or two salad options and every sandwich has meat on it. Pizza and pasta are really the only things that are offered without meat.” Lianos explained. “So, before I would do burgers and sandwiches and chicken on my salad, but now I’m either eating a lot of the same thing or I just choose not to eat there.”

Lianos also described what she would change about the options offered at the dining halls.

“I think if they were to be more creative and try and include grains and beans and other things that aren’t just lettuce and noodles because those aren’t always super filling,” Lianos said. “I think that if they just expanded and tried more.”

Although students struggle with the options available in the dining halls, Sherman still ensures that dining services on campus are working to create menus with a greater vegan focus. 

“We are pushing forward to including even more [vegan and vegetarian options]. We are working with the humane society and their Forward Food initiative, so we’re looking at how we can build out our menus even further,” Sherman said.

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