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Students Help Unis Live Their Missions By Making Campus DefaultVeg

DefaultVeg Universities

November 3, 2023


Better Food Foundation

On college campuses around the world, students are advocating for a more just food system, starting dining hall initiatives that help university administrators reimagine food norms and transform campus culture. Working with food service providers, students can change food procurement to reflect their values. They might resolve to source locally to lessen food mileage, choose organic produce in order to divest from pesticides, or eliminate pork to better include Jewish and Muslim students. One of the more surefire ways to green up the grub and make eating more ethical? DefaultVeg.

Asking food service to serve food differently can be daunting, especially if you want them to reduce or eliminate foods that are commonplace. DefaultVeg is different because it does not take away choice — it simply flips which options are the default — so students have an easier time asking for change and an easier time getting food service administrators to say yes.

Northwestern University students established a DefaultVeg student chapter in 2020, and just two years later, the school’s Associated Student Government passed acting legislation to pledge veg. The resolution includes a 70% plant-based requirement, and hinges on behavioral nudges such as opting into animal-based products at catered events and presenting animal-based products last at buffet-style events. Since then, the school Tour Guide Office has also gone DefaultVeg, as has the School of Education and Social Policy Leadership Institute.

Eight hundred miles east, New York University’s student government adopted similar practices, which paved the way for plant-based defaults elsewhere at NYU, such as the Office of the Provost and Office of Sustainability. Sustainability is an especially popular inroad, NYU following in the footsteps of Harvard’s Office of Sustainability.

Indeed, it’s often easiest to find traction within a single department, program, or think tank. At Oxford it was the Centre for Practical Ethics which first went plant-based, and in Copenhagen it was the Globe Institute. Stateside, Stanford’s Law and Policy program, school of Environment and Resources, and Prevention Research Center have all embraced plant-based defaults. Western Washington University’s College of the Environment is DefaultVeg, as is the Center for Women and Gender Equity at St. Mary’s College.

For administrations unwilling to commit to a permanent policy, special events are an excellent time to trial plant-based defaults. University of Pennsylvania hosted a conference with plant-based defaults, and Johns Hopkins went veg for an event honoring rising stars in cell biology.

Since plant-based diets have such huge potential for climate justice, racial justice, and public health, opportunities may arise in any number of places. There will always be some framing that allows for a foot in the door. The University of San Diego, for one, hosts a “Changemaker Challenge” annually which invites students, faculty, and staff to brainstorm solutions to real-world issues, 2021’s theme being food justice. Winning ideas are brought to life on campus, with USD piloting an oatmilk default in April 2023. Just a week later, Pomona College independently conducted an oatmilk default pilot of its own at a campus cafe in celebration of Earth Month. Oatmilk is incredibly popular among GenZ, so serving oatmilk by default has proven to be an easy win for those looking to shrink cafe emissions or default to lactose-free.

Grassroots organizing among students might be enough — op-eds in Northwestern’s and Stanford’s college newspapers certainly helped galvanize support — but you may find that administrators require hard data if they have any chance of being swayed. The Better Food Foundation worked with Cal Dining to analyze sales data from campus retail locations and identify plant-based products that could replace top-selling animal products. Meanwhile, at UCLA and Harvard events, the eating habits of a veg-default group were meticulously compared with those of a meat-default control group. Results were unsurprising: participants assigned to the plant-based default were 3.52 times more likely to select plant-based meals than those assigned to the meat default. More importantly to administrators, greenhouse gasses were reduced by 40%. This can be a major selling point to college admin.

Many universities have sustainability goals, and food service features heavily into carbon reduction. Rethinking food norms to be plant-heavy can help give colleges a hefty shove toward carbon neutrality if they invest in plant-based defaults as a campus-wide solution. The Plant-BasedU campaign is a Canadian intercollegiate initiative striving to reduce food systems emissions by shifting to plant-based menus on campus. One participating institution, the University of Victoria, aims to produce net zero emissions by 2040. Toward that end, the university has boldly committed to veg defaults: plant-based cheeses are the default option at food stations, all menus list plant-based options first, beef burgers also contain pea protein, and vegan mayo is the default condiment.

A similar movement is happening across the Atlantic, with Animal Rising’s Plant-Based Unis scoring big wins in the UK, including an oatmilk default at four University College London cafes, a month-long oatmilk default pilot at Birmingham, and a 100% plant-based student union at University of Stirling.

Any campus in any country can go plant-powered with enough support. Just as we all share the same planet, we all share the responsibility of eating sustainably, choosing kindness, and building a resilient future. Universities know this — their mission statements reflect as such.

Is it time for your university to go DefaultVeg? We can help! Sign up to receive tips, tricks, toolkits (and inspo!) to steer you — and your campus — to victory.

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