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Appetite for change: better options for those with dietary restrictions

<h5>An arrival quarantine vegan meal — tandoori tofu cutlet.&nbsp;</h5>
<h6>Etiosa Omeike / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
An arrival quarantine vegan meal — tandoori tofu cutlet. 
Etiosa Omeike / The Daily Princetonian

I am grateful to be on campus this semester, and grateful for all of the work the dining hall staff has done. They are working really hard to make on-campus dining possible and safe for us this semester, and I have always found them to be incredibly pleasant. That being said, I love to eat, and this semester, the dining options haven’t been particularly good. I am not a particularly picky eater, but I have been vegetarian for my whole life and plan to keep being vegetarian while at Princeton. Many others are in the same situation. For vegetarians, the current offerings in dining service leave three grim choices: eat similar bland food every day while meat-eating friends have significantly more variety, go hungry, or spend extra money for off-campus dining. Campus Dining needs to do better.

For the first weeks on campus, like many others, I was disappointed by not having enough food some days, and having an almost inedible meal on others. But I understood; the COVID-19 move-in protocols required sacrifices, and I was willing to heavily rely on cookies and bread to get me through that first stretch.

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The food choices have gotten significantly better since Feb. 1, when the dining halls opened. More variety and more quantity — two things I desperately needed. The innumerable types of rice and abundance of beans and tofu have provided much of the campus with protein and nutrients that felt missing before. However, it’s still quite obvious that the options for the main meal for vegetarians, vegans, and others who have similar dietary limitations are just inferior to what meat-eaters get to choose from.

The Princeton undergraduate meal plan costs $2,750 per semester. Even if you were eating every meal available at the dining hall, the cost would be a little more than eight dollars per meal. Maybe this is reasonable for a college dining plan, but it is far too much when people are not getting the food they need. Going for takeout on Nassau St. or to a grocery store when you are already depending on the meal plan is not possible for many students, and is wasteful even for those with the resources to do so. 

For those with dietary restrictions who can’t or won’t get food from off-campus to supplement their diets, that leaves two options: eat extremely repetitive and unsatisfactory meals, or go hungry. 

This should not be the choice that students have to make. Students should be able to eat healthy and well while still enjoying variety in their food from the dining hall. 

There are many reasons people have dietary restrictions. Some have mild or severe food allergies or other health-related food restrictions, and their food needs must be met. Other students will not eat certain foods because of their religion. This is particularly problematic, because when religious minorities on campus are bearing the brunt of the challenges and deficiencies that come with the currently offered meals, we should all be able to acknowledge that something needs to change. 

Recently, an open letter started by Harshini Abbaraju ’22 was signed by hundreds of members of the campus community, asking for a better variety of food for the vegetarian and vegan community on campus this semester. According to Abbaraju, “the biggest thing is that the lack of adequate offerings has caused immense mental and physical health strain, plus financial issues, amidst the existing stressors of the pandemic.” Those of us who signed on to the letter know that we can’t have all of the options that might have been available in a non-pandemic school year, but we are looking for Campus Dining to help alleviate some of the challenges that those with dietary restrictions have faced this year.

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At the end of the day, I am still incredibly grateful to have tolerable meal options that work within my diet. The food service staff works very hard to make this possible, and they have been nothing but pleasant to me as I avoid large portions of the prepared meal options that my meat-eating peers enjoy. This problem is not their responsibility; we need Campus Dining as a whole to do more.

So, to my peers with or without dietary restrictions: sign onto the open letter and voice support for greater food options for those who need them. Not only will you be helping your classmates, but who knows, maybe if things improve you’ll find a vegetarian or vegan favorite that makes your dining experience this semester better, too.

Mohan Setty-Charity is a first-year from Amherst, Mass. He can be reached at ms99@princeton.edu

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