Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 22, 2021

Plant-based meat doesn’t cut it

By DIKSHA IYER | September 20, 2021

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COURTESY OF DIKSHA IYER

Iyer struggles to find food at the Fresh Food Cafe that accommodates her dietary needs.

Just like every other person, I have several substantial aspects to my personality that I make sure to mention on a daily basis. For example, every person on my floor is now very much aware that the state of Michigan obtained the Upper Peninsula after 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. Not only is it terribly hot and humid in Baltimore, but the food is different, too. As a vegetarian, I most 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.

I have been a vegetarian from birth and therefore have never eaten meat or seafood (on purpose). Many of the daily choices I make are based on my eating habits. 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. But as a college student, it has become increasingly difficult to meet these standards.

Growing up in Dearborn, I had a set routine of food I would eat and places that I would purchase the ingredients from. For example, I knew that my local grocery store would stock my specific 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. Now, in Dearborn, I was not exposed to plant-based meat and was intrigued. I must admit that it tastes good. 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. But I do have a small bone to pick (not a literal bone, as I am vegetarian) with the FFC. I would love to have some 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. My friends find it easy to procure sources of protein in the chicken or beef options at the FFC. But I have had to experiment a bit to find a combination of food that complements my palette and hits all aspects of my diet.

This need to experiment has left me with a sense of uncertainty every time I enter 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. So, though this might seem like a small issue to combat, the lack of variety in my diet affects my mind in enormous ways. It’s easy to give up and choose increasingly unhealthier options to satiate my hunger. 

For example, while there might be several vegetarian options at the FFC on a given day, they will always include pizza, pasta and cooked zucchini & squash. On a good day, I might be able to find rice, but it will always be white rice, limiting me in the diversity of grains available to consume. The vegan meat options are a bright point in my diet if I can procure some, but the most they can offer me is a source of 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 leads to quite a 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. Several of my friends who also need to consume dairy alternatives have expressed their desire to have more diversity in the selection. Having guaranteed access to a dairy alternative that we are familiar with would be much preferred to having to purchase Lactaid milk from CharMar and finding a way to store it.

My first experiences with the FFC were most definitely not amazing ones. However, I know that there is potential to offer a sustainable diet for vegetarian and lactose intolerant students. Our dietary restrictions make it difficult to obtain a diverse plate every time we go to the FFC, and I would prefer to go the rest of the school year without needing to consume grilled cheese daily. 

While the fake meat at the FFC can be quite interesting and has surely expanded my palette, I cannot help but feel that I am missing out on the essential parts of my diet. Experimentation is a wonderful thing. Let’s go a little bit further and offer a wider range of options.

Diksha Iyer is a freshman from Dearborn, Mich. studying Public Health and Neuroscience.

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