Campus vegetarianism just sprouting
Lack of schools’ understanding, students’ prejudices stand out as major challenges
By Noh Hyun-gi
“This isn’t meat, is it? But it tastes just like regular sausage,” exclaimed Kim Joo-hyun, a sophomore at Ewha Womans University, after she took a bite of a fried snack offered at one of many stands set up for the school’s spring festival in Seoul last week.
The booth belonged to Cherry, a group of vegetarian students, and the sample Kim tried was a vegan product, meaning that it’s not just free of meat but egg or dairy products as well.
Cherry’s has a greater mission than just spreading the benefits of a meat-free life in the hope of converting a few vegetarians — it wants to open a restaurant on campus. To most carnivores, checking out meat alternatives is one thing but accepting a “gospel” of vegetarianism can be totally another.
Cho So-hee, who started the organization in 2010, is trying to persuade the school to allow a non-meat restaurant.
“I believe schools are the ideal places to explore vegetarianism, My sister turned vegetarian but had to start eating meat when she began working. It was impossible to continue as society is unaccommodating and oblivious to people who do not want to eat animal products,” she said.
Vegetarianism is becoming a new identity trait for individuals in their twenties to make a difference in the world.
“My identity as a vegetarian is like I am wearing a Scarlett Letter” said Kim Ji-hae, president of Roots & Shoots at Ewha. Roots & Shoots is a global program founded by renowned primatologist Jane Goodall to raise awareness on environmental issues among youth.
“It singles me out; makes people question my principles. But I’ve developed a sense of pride just like Hester Prynne, the protagonist of the Hawthorne novel, did.”
Hwang Hee-won, a junior who was minding the Cherry booth, said she started cutting down meat consumption after taking a class on environmentalism. “In an effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, my friends and I boycott meat on Mondays.”
While the practice is widely accepted as a body-conscious choice for dieters and people with medical conditions, students are delving into the roots of the international lifestyle over concerns for the environment and animal welfare.
Meat production emits carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Meat and dairy products accounts for 70 percent of global freshwater use, 38 percent of total land use and 19 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2010 report by the United Nations Environment Programme.
For pastures, carbon dioxide-absorbing forests need to be cleared. The average cow releases between 70 and 120 kilograms of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, per year.
Nitrous oxide from the livestock’s decomposing manure and the energy consumed through transportation and meat processing also harm the planet.
Currently, three colleges in Seoul have vegetarian cafeterias — Seoul National University (SNU), Dongguk University, and Sahmyook University.
Seijong University’s cafeteria offers “Meat Free Mondays.”
SNU’s opening of a vegetarian buffet and a restaurant that offers meat-free dishes was a student-led effort. In other schools, faculty members and school administrations passed the changes.
Shin Dong-jun, a sophomore at SNU and president of Ssi-al said the most challenging part was to convince their peers.
“When we advocated these culinary options, people thought we were trying to reduce the opportunities for meat eaters. That is not our goal. We want to give choices for those who don’t want to or can’t eat meat,” Shin said.
Ssi-al condemns cruelty towards animals and stands by those who forego meat for religious and health reasons. “In the end, we were able to get support from some 1,000 students.” The buffet opened in 2009 and has been attracting visitors from outside the school as well.
Unfortunately, this success may be a unique case. “We contacted 33 four-year colleges in Seoul about vegetarian cafes during school festivals, but only three responded,” said Kim Hyun-kyung, an activist from the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement.
The non-profit organization has helped organizations like Cherry, SNU and Korea University by supplying ingredients for snacks.
Currently, Cherry members are conducting online surveys to gauge the demand for a meat-free shop to present to the school board. “When I approach professors about this, they do not care about the importance of environment-friendly or cruelty-free life choices too much. So we figured it best to gather data on how the other girls feel.”
Until then, Cherry students are focusing on making small improvements to make campus life easier for vegetarians.
“The more serious issue is that eateries around campus do not properly indicate the ingredients they use. So I often ate meat by accident or had to ask very specific questions to learn whether or not a dish is vegetarian. Even worse, at cafeterias, the employees don’t even know what is in the food they serve,” Cho said.
As important as advocating the health and moral benefits of a meat-free lifestyle is, it is also about showing others that it is possible. Kim Sang-e, a senior member of Cherry said, “Though I was aware of the importance of vegetarianism, I hesitated for a year to commit. However, cooking meat-free food myself for the festival proved that it is doable.”
One does not have to drastically change eating habits. “You do it gradually, starting with eating less meat, then avoiding poultry, and then moving off beef and pork. Finally, if possible, give up eggs and dairy to become vegan,” Kim said.