Two weeks ago, anthropology student Nicole McNevin posed a question to the Wheaton student body in order to collect data for her senior capstone project: “What do you think about vegetarianism?”
Wheaton responded with some colorful answers:
“Does it taste different when you kiss a vegetarian?”
“For hipsters only.”
“I was born to eat meat.”
“The poster got thrashed,” McNevin said. “I’m not totally surprised. Just generally knowing how people in the United States react to vegetarianism and veganism, … when there’s no vegetarian presence in the room and the subject goes to vegetarianism, people can talk pretty harshly about it. People have some pretty stringent opinions on it.”
Through her capstone project, McNevin is setting out to change some of these opinions. In order to engage the Wheaton public on the issues of vegetarianism and veganism, McNevin has started the campus’s first-ever Vegetarian Club. The group held its inaugural meeting on Sunday, April 2 with a vegetarian and vegan-friendly dinner.
For many of the club’s first attendees, the group provides an opportunity to connect with other vegetarians and vegans, which was lacking on campus before.
“As a vegetarian and vegan, I’ve only met one other vegetarian on campus, and it’s sad,” said junior Riley Parsons. “I think the main thing I’m excited about with is being able to have that community.”
Gathered in Bottom House for the club dinner on April 2 was a group of students from all years and majors and with a variety of journeys to vegetarianism. Some were vegetarian; others were vegan and eat no animal products at all. A handful of meat-eating students “sympathetic” to vegetarianism also attended. Certain members stopped eating meat for health reasons, while others made the switch for reasons concerning either the environment or animal rights. And while some have been vegans or vegetarians for years, others were in the early months of switching their diets. But uniting them was exciting to these students who wanted to find others who shared their food lifestyles. “It’s like we’re all coming out of hiding!” students joked during dinner.
Is there a reason it seems that all the vegetarians at Wheaton are in hiding?
“My own theory is that the vegetarian-vegan movement is associated in the minds of white evangelicals with either health or animal rights,” McNevin said.
She believes that this is problematic largely because of the stereotypes that are associated with vegetarians and vegans. Regarding health, McNevin referred to a stereotype that vegetarian diets don’t provide enough protein, especially for athletes. And when it comes to animal rights, McNevin points out that many Christians connect vegetarianism to secular arguments about animal life being “on par” with human life.
“That draws out a lot of aggression, I think,” she said.
The connection between faith and food is strong for many of Wheaton’s vegetarians. While more outspoken supporters of meat-inclusive diets frequently cite Bible passages in Genesis and Acts in which God gives humans “dominion” over animals as food, for Parsons and McNevin, this clashes with the idea of stewardship.
“We’re called to steward the earth and animals are involved in that,” said Parsons, who became a vegetarian during her freshman year of high school after seeing footage of meat slaughterhouses. “I agree with people when they say that God did give us permission to eat animals … However, God never gave us permission to torture or factory farm them.”
Philosophy professor Dr. Cliff Williams, who has been a vegetarian for 45 years, looks at the intersection of consumption and Christianity from a perspective of caring for oneself.
“I think Christians should be thinking about treatment of animals, should be thinking about the food they eat, and should take care of themselves,” Williams said. “That strikes me as a pretty basic scriptural idea, “Love your neighbor as yourself … We ought to love ourselves, and loving ourselves means doing things to have good health.”
Nationwide trends reflect a growing concern regarding meat consumption, whether for animal rights, environmental or health reasons. A survey conducted by peta2, the youth-focused division of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, reported a 63 percent increase in vegan options on college campuses from 2013 to 2015, while in 2012 USA Today reported a parallel between decreased meat consumption nationwide and an increase in veganism and vegetarianism among college students.
Wheaton is not blind to these needs: Anderson Commons offers vegetarian options daily. According to Bon Appetit general manager Raul Delgado, the Classics, Spice and Cucina sections offer at least one vegetarian hot option each day, while the “At Your Service” station for students with food allergies also offers options for vegans and vegetarians.
Bon Appetit surveys Wheaton students twice yearly. Of the 20 percent of students who typically respond, Delgado reports that around 10 percent say that they are vegan or vegetarian.
“In the time I have been here, I have not seen an huge increase based on the data from the surveys,” Delgado said. “Those percentages have stayed pretty consistent over the past few years. However, we still have plenty of options for this very important segment of our dining population.”
According to McNevin and other vegetarians in attendance at the club’s first meeting, it is relatively easy to be a vegetarian at Saga with these options from Bon Appetit. However, McNevin pointed out that options at campus-sponsored events or off-campus endeavors such as Breakaway trips or Honey Rock are often limited. Veganism also presents more of a challenge. Parsons, who has been a vegan for four months, said that she “definitely would not have been able to become vegan” if she was still on a meal plan on campus.
The Vegetarian Club hopes simply to create conversation — not conversion — around issues of vegetarianism and veganism on campus. As its founder, McNevin hopes to give the club its start so it can continue in the future, where she hopes to see it become a permanent part of Wheaton’s campus.
“I’m not necessarily out to convert anyone to vegetarianism/veganism,” McNevin said. “I just want to bring to mind how people at this school can live more ethical lives by considering how what putting in bodies is glorifying to God or not glorifying to God.”