Caylse Tobias
Caylse Tobias

Enter any dining hall on campus and you’ll see a framed certificate on the wall declaring UC Santa Cruz the “Most Vegan-Friendly College” in the nation. Venture a few feet further and you’ll see that it’s anything but.

As an incoming first-year, I decided to transition from being a vegetarian to a vegan when I moved onto campus. I was under the impression that being vegan —something I considered difficult at the time — would be feasible at this school.

But I soon realized the place I expected to be my source of dietary support was my greatest hindrance. Not only were vegan options meager, they often weren’t actually vegan.

Eating in the dining halls can be dietary Russian-roulette.

Food is routinely mislabeled. Recently at the College Nine/Ten Dining Hall, vegetable soup was labeled vegan, though it contained bacon and cheese. The same dining hall served a vegan eggs Benedict. Its listed allergens were dairy, vegan, eggs and wheat. Unbeknownst to the most vegan-friendly college, a “vegan” is someone who does not eat animal products. You cannot be allergic to an identity.

This negligence isn’t only ridiculous, it’s dangerous — someone with an allergy can be harmed by incorrect labels. The first time I ate something non-vegan by mistake, it was rice cooked in milk and didn’t have a dairy allergen listed on it.

Illustration by Kaileen Smith
Illustration by Kaileen Smith

I am not putting the blame on individuals, but the dining system as a whole. I have asked dining staff to remove a “vegan” or “vegetarian” placard when the food next to it does not fit that description and doesn’t have any allergen labels to warn students. They were unaware the labels were inaccurate, but didn’t replace them with correct ones.

Although dining hall employees watch a training video about diets and allergens, there needs to be a systemwide regulation of the labeling process and emphasis on the importance of these standards.

I felt patronized and invalidated by my experience with mislabeled food. Following these incidents, I tried to cancel my meal plan, but was told by the housing office at my college that I couldn’t because meal plans are bound to university housing by contract.

I was told meal plans can be canceled based on allergies, financial burdens or kosher diets — but not veganism. UCSC supposedly has some of the best vegan food in the country and  the housing office said employees would happily point it out to me.

I am not alone in this experience, as I know other vegan students who have also tried unsuccessfully to cancel their meal plans. Instead of paying for an inclusive dining experience, the money I had to pay for a mandatory meal plan fed into bureaucratic financial exploitation of students that is rampant at this university.

I was not willing to give my family’s money for inadequate, disrespectful and expensive food.

So I broke my housing contract.

While part of UCSC Housing’s mission is to accommodate students with “food allergies or intolerances, and other special dietary needs” and states that it takes the “commitment to being sustainable seriously,” my experience and the experiences of my peers convey the opposite.

Sure, a student can scan a QR code on each entrees’ placard to get an accurate list of ingredients if something was mislabeled. But students shouldn’t have to go through such a process to trust the food in the place they call home.

The continuous mislabeling of food is detrimental to student health, ethics and sustainability efforts. UCSC Dining is failing to protect student safety and address environmental efforts. This points to a larger disconnect between the university and its projected image.

It’s in the university’s best interest to appeal to prospective students and investors and maintain the advantageous results of its hippy-dippy reputation.

Some may argue that veganism is a niche diet, so why should UCSC Dining be expected to accommodate vegans?

Veganism has a positive environmental impact, and as a university that touts itself as a bastion of environmentalism, UCSC should be more effective in advocating for it. Vegans have a substantially reduced water footprint, considering growing feed crops for livestock consumes 56 percent of water in the U.S. Livestock is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gases, more than all of transportation.

I shouldn’t have to justify veganism in terms that are beneficial to humans, though.

Veganism is not just a diet, but a way of life. My veganism is rooted in ethics to protect beings who feel love and pain. Knowing I ate parts of animals who had been tortured and murdered for unnecessary consumption broke my heart, and the invalidation of that grief made me feel uncomfortable in my own home.

UCSC Dining and Housing shouldn’t rest on its laurels before it realizes how much damage it is doing to its sustainability efforts and students in the name of profit.