Next week, the University of North Texas will open the nation's first strictly vegan cafeteria.
But administrators didn't create the vegan-friendly option to make a statement about animal welfare or sustainability so much as to provide more options for a student body whose tastes are growing increasingly diverse, said Ken Botts, director of special projects for Dining Services.
So the Southern comfort fare at a separate dining hall that's opening Monday, then, is just another option designed to please the students. Despite the coincidental timing, the fried chicken and barbecue specialties at this cafeteria were not created to appease the non-vegan crowd, Botts said.
"It is the other end of the spectrum, but it wasn't meant as a comfort for those folks who are going to say, 'Well, I'm not vegan and I want to eat meat,' " Botts said. "It's in alignment with the same thought, that this is a way for us to offer our population variety."
North Texas is winning praise from animal welfare advocates even if its officials didn't set out to make a statement of that sort: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is awarding North Texas a "compassionate campus award."
North Texas is the first mainstream university to offer an all-vegan facility, said Ryan Huling, manager of college campaigns for PETA. (Others, such as the Maharishi University of Management  in Iowa, have offered far more vegetarian and vegan options, for longer.) "This is certainly the latest example of a growing trend of schools offering a wide variety of vegan samples," he said, "responding to overwhelming student demand for meatless meals." Huling noted a 2004 survey by the food service provider Aramark finding that a quarter of college students say vegan options on campus are "important to them ."
In a statement sent to Inside Higher Ed, Aramark said that vegetarian and vegan menu offerings have increased about 15 percent since 2006. That may correspond somewhat with a new push for more healthful options. "In recent years, we have seen a trend of vegan, vegetarian, calorie-conscious, fat-conscious, whole grain, gluten-free and locally sourced food requests," Aramark said.
Most colleges that start up special menus find that vegan foods fare much better than they would have expected, said Huling of PETA.
"Mean Greens" at North Texas was already known as the "healthy cafeteria" and had won awards for its work with smaller portion sizes and serving lighter foods; on the sustainability end, the university has also gone trayless and cut down on carbon-emitting shipments. But as the university continued to hear requests for more healthful food, and as vegetarians who felt they had no options complained as well, North Texas officials realized they had to accommodate what they say are national dining trends.
"We wanted to step outside the box a little bit," Botts said, "and take it to that next level."
Botts said that in conducting research for this project, he couldn't find a single other all-vegan dining hall. Neither has Roger Pigozzi, executive chef for dining services at the University of California at Los Angeles, which was named the most vegan-friendly college in 2010 by PETA . (Behind UCLA were New York and Ohio Universities in the "large U.S. schools" category, and Northwestern, American and Brandeis Universities in the "small U.S. schools" category.)
UCLA doesn't have a single dining hall devoted to veganism. But each restaurant and cafeteria under the dining services umbrella offers a handful of vegan options at all times. (Most colleges have models similar to this; some might have a designated spot in each dining hall for vegan options.) UCLA, too, started paying special attention to vegan cuisine when students did. Just a few years ago, Pigozzi said, "Nobody was asking for it."
Now, vegan offerings at UCLA have a 5 to 10 percent "take rate" -- that is, that's their market share of food purchased by the diners.
Even though he's clearly a proponent of students' rights to choose vegan food, Pigozzi's thoughts on opening an all-vegan space may be indicative of why more people haven't done so. When he first started planning vegan options, he considered a small university venue where he could train his staff on vegan preparation without worrying about cross-contamination. But, in the end, the staff didn't think there was enough demand for the supply.
Botts believes he has the demand. Even though North Texas already carries plenty of vegetarian options, Botts could tell there was an appetite for vegan food from the popularity of a number of new hot dish options and from the emphatic support of many students, faculty and staff for the idea.
Of course, students don't always like to be told what to eat. Last fall at Bowdoin College , during the dining halls' observation of 'Meatless Mondays ,' some students protested by throwing impromptu barbecues outside cafeterias. According to PETA , just under 40 colleges observe Meatless Mondays.
But students in Texas will still be able to opt for meat. Regular dining hours start up again on Monday, and Botts doesn't expect any sort of vegan-Southern comfort throwdown. In fact if all goes well, the vegan hall will even attract some newcomers. With options like pizza, vegetable sushi, a panini bar and a variety of Middle Eastern sauces, there won't be anything "really foreign and strange," he said.