A Meaty Subject

Come meal time, institutions like prisons, colleges and ballparks are offering vegetarian entrees as alternatives to animal products

December 20, 2007|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,sun reporter

New in hoosgow chow: veggie burgers, tofurkey and mock dogs.

Faux meat has gone mainstream among those who are, alas, no longer in the mainstream.

Most correctional institutions around the nation offer vegetarian entrees at all meals, according to a new survey by the Norfolk, Va.-based animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

The group has also looked at colleges (very veggie) and ballparks (not as much) and insists there has been a response to growing demand in the nation's institutions, some of which haven't often been at the forefront of wholesome eating. PETA officials and others say food in places like these is a health issue, in addition to a taste preference for some and a religious conviction for others.

Health professionals say vegetable-based products are often lower in fats and calories than food made from animals and, over time, can lead to slimmer waistlines and fewer cases of heart disease and diabetes. That may mean fewer dollars for health care long-term, even if some veggie products cost more than meat today.

"When it's better for everyone, they call that a win-win," PETA spokesman Bruce Friedrich said.

About 2.5 percent of Americans are full-time vegetarians, according to the American Dietetic Association. Up to a quarter eat four or more meatless meals a week.

At Northwestern University in Chicago, the school that PETA ranked No. 1 in its survey of colleges, the number is closer to 18 percent vegetarian or vegan, according to Sodexho Inc., the campus food concessionaire. Vegetarians eschew meat, fish and fowl. Vegans also cut out eggs, milk and other animal products.

Students have become sophisticated eaters, said Paul Komelasky, Sodexho's regional district manager. About $750,000 a month is now spent on sushi at Northwestern, compared with almost nothing five years ago.

"There's great interest in food today," said Komelasky, who uses a dietitian to help prepare menus for the 5,000 who eat lunch daily.

Arnold Waddell, manager of residential dining at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif. (PETA's No. 4), said menus are a constant challenge and he regularly hears about them from many of the 7,550 students by way of "napkin notes." He estimates 120 of the more than 600 he feeds at lunch are vegetarians.

"We're always looking for recipes and things that will be appealing, taste-wise as well as visually," he said.

The same is true at ballparks. Aramark Corp., which manages food concessions at several major league stadiums, sells veggie wraps in Houston (PETA's No. 10) and veggie cheese steaks in Philadelphia (No. 1).

Fan feedback

Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards, an Aramark ballpark, didn't make PETA's list. Aramark spokesman David Freireich said menus reflect local flavors and demands. And the locals apparently aren't demanding veggie burgers. Regardless, they are offered salads, fruit bowls and veggie dogs.

"We work closely with the teams and solicit fan feedback in determining the menus, but the traditional favorites are always the most popular -- hot dogs, pretzels and peanuts," he said. "Some fans want a health dinner, but a lot of fans use a night out at the ballpark as an excuse to park their diet at the door."

But outside the ballpark, preferences might be changing.

Erica Meier, executive director of Compassion Over Killing, a Washington-based animal rights group, launched a Web site, vegbaltimore.com, which lists local restaurants and meatless food venues.

"Being a vegetarian in Baltimore is easier today than it was just 10 years ago," she said.

As for prisons, Maryland's system (which wasn't on PETA's list) may not be in league with Idaho (No. 1), where inmates are served lentil shepherd's pie on occasion. But you can get a cheese and bean burrito behind bars in Maryland.

The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services began offering vegetarian options a decade ago. System officials couldn't say how many vegetarians are in its ranks, but Deborah Warren, correctional dietary supervisor at the prison for women in Jessup, says there are at least a dozen there.

Warren said she encourages the women to eat healthy, vegetarian or not. She makes a special effort with those who have diabetes or high cholesterol.

`Some listen'

Jeanette Bunch, one of the vegetarians at the prison, said she, too, tries to get others to steer clear of fried chicken and other artery-cloggers. A lifelong Muslim, Bunch, 44, has never been a meat eater and appreciates the health benefits -- and she appreciates the staff for giving her extra beans and vegetables for protein and iron.

She looks forward to the day, maybe by the end of 2008, when she could be released after serving her robbery sentence and able to gather her two sons and two grandkids around a table for a plate of her favorite things: beans, greens, potatoes and cheese layered among tortillas.

This day, however, she'll be served pizza with a side of mixed vegetables in the cafeteria.

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