“No, Mom, I don’t eat meat anymore. I’m a vegetarian now.”
Here we have the simple, straightforward reply of the newly converted vegetarian, home for the first long weekend since departing for college in September. She (the gender here reflects the statistics, with females representing 59% of vegetarians in the U.S.) is firm with her statement and her mother is surprised and confused to find the daughter who once adored fried bologna sandwiches has referred to herself as a “vegetarian.” Disheartened at the prospect of substituting her great-grandmother’s patented family meatball recipe for something involving slimy white bean-curd, Mom can’t help but wonder how it all happened.
And Mom isn’t alone. In 2008, Vegetarian Times conducted a study on vegetarians in the United States. The results of this study indicated that vegetarianism was highest amongst people between the ages of 18 and 34, with this age group representing 42.0 percent of the 7.3 million vegetarians in America. This bracket includes college-aged young adults. So why is going vegetarian becoming a more and more popular choice for Americans of this age?
Let’s rewind. The answers become clearer if we put ourselves in the shoes of the “Newly Converted Vegetarian” and attempt to construct some version of what her experience may have been like.
We’ll speculate that the idea begins to take shape during the first week on campus at the student activities fair. Newly Converted Vegetarian encounters the booth put together by the Animal Rights Organization. They’re handing out pamphlets and flyers with information she has never heard before. She learns that, in factory farms, chickens are crammed together in wire cages where they don’t even have enough room to spread their wings, and that cattle raised for food are pumped full of drugs to make them grow at unnatural rates.
For many vegetarians of any age, issues with animal rights and general discomfort with the idea of eating animals often forms the basis for their vegetarianism. “I knew I wanted to be a vegetarian the first time I heard The Smiths’ song ‘Meat is Murder,’” says Dustin Watson, a former college vegetarian who has now reverted back to an omnivorous diet. The song he refers to contains lyrics such as “Heifer cries could be human cries” and strongly emphasizes the connection between the living animals we see and the meat on our plates. Watson, like many others, had an intense reaction to this. “I was like ‘Yeah, Morrissey, I know what you’re saying. Meat is murder. Starting today, no more meat.” The pamphlets handed out by the Animal Rights Organization would serve the same function: to revive ideas suppressed since childhood about the source of meat and reveal new information about the harmful process of obtaining meat.
Then there is, of course, the liberating realization that Newly Converted Vegetarian is in control of her diet in a way that she has never been before. The options are no longer restricted to what her mother has cooked for dinner; college cafeterias often provide a wide range of foods to choose from and indicate which options are suitable for vegetarians and vegans alike. When surveying the cafeteria, she becomes overwhelmed with choices, aware of her power.
Many cafeterias, such as the one at Emmanuel College, go beyond simply offering a variety of meat alternatives to providing information on issues regarding the sustainability of food sources and the importance of buying food locally. Emmanuel's cafeteria, run by Bon Appetit Management Company, even holds an annual “Low Carbon Diet Day,” during which it is overrun with signs conveying information on the carbon impact of various meal selections and offers low carbon alternatives.
“I don’t think a lot of people think about where their food comes from,” says Leah Jurman, an Emmanuel College student and vegetarian of nine years. “There’s just a lot going into food. There’s so much more to food than what you see and I think that’s important to consider.” The negative impact of the meat industry and factory farming on the environment is an aspect of the issue that, for many, flies under the radar until they deliberately seek out more information. Newly Converted Vegetarian, inspired to further research the issue, finds plenty of sources supporting these new ideas, such as a 2006 United Nations report that calls the meat industry “one of the top two or three most significant contributors serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”
Newly Converted Vegetarian now finds herself armed with information and left with the difficult decision of what to do with it. Should she continue her meat-eating ways or attempt to make the transition to a vegetarian lifestyle? One factor that may provide the final push is the consideration of the opportunity that college provides in terms of the freedom to reinvent identity and explore radical political and social issues. “One thing I think motivates people at this time is that vegetarian becomes a part of something else you’re trying to experience,” says Leah Jurman. “It’s sort of encapsulated in this whole ‘being green’ thing, or being political, or it becomes a part of something, it’s something that gives weight to your opinions.” Dustin Watson takes that statement further by suggesting that vegetarianism in college becomes a “club” and that the desire to feel included may offer more motivation that the issue itself. “They want to believe they’re part of something so they become vegetarians,” he says. “And the majority of them last a semester. I knew a few people who were ‘vegan’ but would sneak KFC on the weekends.”
So where does that leave Newly Converted Vegetarian? She has arrived at her decision for the present moment, but the memory of the taste of her great-grandmother’s famous meatballs is powerful, as is her mom’s disapproving glare. The study done by Vegetarian Times indicates that 57.1 percent of vegetarians today have followed a vegetarian diet for more than ten years. The majority of vegetarians who commit tend to stay committed. Will she be one of them?