Plant-based meat doesn’t cut it

Just like every other person, I have several substantial aspects to my personality that I make sure to mention on a daily basis. Every person on my floor knows that Michigan gained the Upper Peninsula in the Battle of Toledo. 

I’m from Dearborn, Mich., if you didn’t catch my slight obsession with my state’s history. It’s quite different from Maryland. Baltimore is extremely hot and humid. The food is also different. As a vegetarian, I definitely felt the difference. Well, I am not just your average vegetarian (insert Disney intro here)… I’m lactose intolerant. But you wouldn’t really know that by just looking at me — I positively scarf down the cereal and milk at the Fresh Food Cafe’s (FFC). It’s delicious but not always a daily option, if you know what I mean.

Since birth, I have been vegetarian and have never eaten seafood or meat (on purpose). Many of the choices I make in my daily life are based on how I eat. Before even entering a restaurant, the first thing I do is ask for a menu, which I then peruse for options that aren’t salad. There are only two things I ask from my food selection: I don’t want to be hungry in a couple hours, and I want to be able to choose something different every now and then. It has been increasingly difficult for college students to meet these standards.

Growing up in Dearborn I had a certain routine for what I would eat, and where I would get the ingredients. I knew that my local grocery would have my particular brand of milk every Tuesday. I got used to it, and my arrival in Baltimore was quite the culture shock: There’s meat everywhere, but it isn’t really meat. It’s plant-based. Dearborn was the first place I was exposed to plant-based food, and I was intrigued. It tastes great, I have to admit. I’ve been guilty of taking seconds on the sweet chili seitan and the “fake” chicken.

The vegan movement is strong here in Baltimore, as evidenced by the FFC’s Meatless Mondays. The FFC has a small bone for me (not literally, since I am vegetarian). I would love more variety. Since I’m lactose intolerant, the grilled cheese option is really a once-a-day last resort that has been used way too often. It is easy for my friends to find protein in the FFC’s chicken or beef options. I’ve had to experiment a lot to find the right combination of food that suits my palate and meets all my dietary needs.

This urge to experiment has left me feeling uncertain every time I go to the FFC. There’s always pizza and fries, but those aren’t the healthiest of options, and they can’t sustain a college student for the entire school year. I never expected struggling to find a variety of food to be another thing to add to my plate — figuratively, of course. Although this may seem like an insignificant problem, it has profound effects on my mind. It’s easy to give up and choose increasingly unhealthier options to satiate my hunger. 

Although there may be many vegetarian options at FFC on any given day, they will always offer pizza, pasta, and baked zucchini & squash. On a good days, I might be capable of finding rice, but it will always remain white rice. This restricts my choices for grains. If I can find vegan meat, it is a bright spot in my diet. However, the only thing they can offer me is soy.

In essence, the meals offered at the FFC for vegetarians like me seem to “check the box.” Rather than offer us a variety of healthy food groups to choose from, we are given one option that is relatively sustainable — usually black beans — and some rice to have it with. This results in a rather depressing meal.

Furthermore, being unable to drink cow’s milk, I was happy to see that there was a dairy alternative offered — hemp milk, which was a truly new and weird experience for me — but in startlingly small amounts. Many of my friends, who also need dairy alternatives, expressed their desire for more variety in the selection. It would be much better to have guaranteed access to a dairy option we are familiar with than having to purchase Lactaid from CharMar and find a way to store it.

My first experiences with FFC were not great. However, I believe that the FFC has the potential to provide a healthy diet for students who are vegetarian or lactose intolerant. We have dietary restrictions that make it difficult to get a varied plate every time we go. I would prefer not to have to eat grilled cheese daily for the remainder of the school year. 

The FFC has a lot of interesting fake meat, which has helped me expand my palate. However, I can’t help but feel that I am missing essential elements of my diet. Experimentation can be a wonderful thing. Let’s go a little bit further and offer a wider range of options.

Diksha is a freshman from Dearborn in Michigan, where she studies Neuroscience and Public Health.

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