While academia may be known for its progressive attitude, colleges and universities aren't particularly quick to jump on the plant-based bandwagon — despite the fact that increasing numbers of students are transitioning to a veg diet.
But at Johnson & Wales University's North Miami campus, veganism is thriving. This is thanks to teaching assistant Kelsey Carter, director of culinary operations Chris Wagner, and other dedicated campus educators and students. The school's interim campus president, Larry Rice, also happens to be vegan.
Two years ago, Carter became a vegetarian. She has been transitioning to veganism for the past couple of years. Wagner has a similar tale. And the two aren't alone. Plant-based eating is growing increasingly popular, and JWU is looking to get ahead of the game.
Carter is a teaching assistant at the College of Culinary Arts and has been educating students and the campus overall on the benefits of a plant-based diet. She and Professor Chef Barbara Kamp do weekly "alternative lifestyles" demos, most of which are vegan. They've covered seitan, vegan baking, nut-milk cheeses, and other topics.
"We do have a lot of students and faculty that live with a plant-based diet, so we try to incorporate that and give students an opportunity to expand their knowledge and expertise on vegan cooking."
In a restaurant management class, Carter's group is doing the school's first-ever all-vegan concept. They'll dole out plant-based eats April 23 at a pop-up restaurant on campus.
"The requirement for the class is every group that does a restaurant concept, they have to include one vegan menu item for guests," Carter explains.
"We decided to do everything vegan, which has never been done before in this class. My group is very excited. They're not vegans and don't do a plant-based diet at all; they love their meat, they love their cheeses, but they're very excited about what we can do for this class."
After she began transitioning to veganism, Carter realized the school had a long way to go.
She realized "very little students knew about it, how little we taught about it in classes and read about it, how in the dark people were that this was an upcoming trend."
Because Miami is behind the plant-based curve, Carter wants locals to be prepared as the trend makes its way to South Florida.
As she began spearheading the efforts from the students' side, professors and teachers began to get on board. Now many of the instructors have incorporated plant-based techniques and topics into their classes, from vegan baking to light and healthful desserts.
"As we started to get chefs involved, they've started to implement it more into their classes because they see that the students do need to know this," Carter explains.
Last year, the school even prepared a plant-based alternative Thanksgiving dinner for a radio station last year, Wagner says.
"We also have a vegan day in our food service operation for our students. Every Wednesday we have a vegan day, but we also have a vegan and vegetarian option every day because the demand is slowly but surely climbing," Wagner says. He's been making the transition from vegetarian to mostly vegan for the past four years, and he says it has changed his outlook.
"It's actually broadened my culinary horizons. I've been doing this for 30 years, and I was not aware of how much you can do with plant-based ingredients," Wagner says. "I have never cooked more creative than I cook today."
The school even has an edible landscape, and they're trying to grow and harvest more vegetables to incorporate into vegan and vegetarian meals. Also, when they do school functions, the menu starts out as vegan, and meat and dairy are added in moderation for the carnivores, Wagner says. "Before, it was the other way around, you based everything around meat. Now we’ve flip-flopped that."
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All in all, Johnson & Wales is committing a significant amount of attention to plant-based lifestyles, something not a lot of other schools are doing — yet.
"I think the vegan movement, if you want to call it that, pretty soon will be a very normal thing," Wagner adds. "Unfortunately, chefs are very little prepared for that, and hopefully we become an institution that can really pilot that in an educational way and bring that forward a little bit. If students are interested, this can only grow."
Carter will graduate soon but will leave a powerful legacy. Wagner hopes other students will step up in her absence, given her many followers.
"This whole thing is really exploding," Wagner says. "The student-driven part of it is really awesome."