Students arriving now on several Maine campuses — Maine College of Art in Portland, Southern Maine Community College in South Portland and the University of Maine at Farmington — can expect to find new vegan options in their dining halls.

Workers put the finishing touches on the Brooks Dining Hall, which underwent a $2.5 million renovation this summer that made way for more vegan meals. Photo courtesy of University of Southern Maine

But the most significant increase comes at the University of Southern Maine campus in Gorham, where the Brooks Dining Hall underwent a $2.5 million renovation this summer, making way for added vegan meal options.

The renovation allowed the university to “expand the menu for vegans and other students who are gluten-free or vegetarian,” USM’s Chief Operations Officer Nancy Griffin said.

New this year are vegan dishes such as kale and farro breakfast bowls, jackfruit carnita sandwiches with jicama slaw, and chocolate–peanut butter brownies.

Tadd Stone, general manager of the university’s food service, which is provided by Sodexo, said the renovated dining hall is oriented around flexible stations that change depending on the time of day or the menu, and all feature vegan dishes or ingredients.

In the morning students can now get made-to-order smoothies with plant-based milks or vegan protein powder. At the pasta, stir-fry and pizza stations, students can add local beans, grilled tofu, marinated tempeh, falafel patties or jackfruit to their custom-made dishes. The deli station stocks vegan cheese and meat, and the salad bar has a vegan and vegetarian section.

“We’re trying as much as possible to keep items separate,” Stone said. “Meat options are kept on one side and vegan options on the other side.”

That’s a step in the right direction, according to vegan students who have been complaining about the lack of options at Brooks Dining Hall for years. Junior Abigayle Johnson moved off campus this year in large part because she wasn’t able to justify the cost of the meal plan given the lack of vegan options. Third-year nursing student Isabelle Collins will also be cooking her own vegan meals. Like Johnson, last year she felt she didn’t get her money’s worth.

“I was sometimes spending $50 extra a week to supplement my diet,” Collins said. “Don’t get me wrong, I love a good salad as much as the next person but, contrary to what people might think, vegans do not just live on lettuce and tomatoes. And french fries and white pasta do not make a complete meal.”

Collins noted that breakfast and themed meal nights were the most difficult times to find a vegan meal.

“Cross contamination,” Johnson added, was an ongoing issue. The potatoes were cooked in the same fryer as the chicken, while the veggies on the salad bar often had cheese dribbled across them. Even more perplexing: The hot vegetables were cooked in butter.

The vegan jackfruit carnita sandwiches with jicama slaw have been added to the menu at USM’s Brooks Dining Hall this semester. Photo courtesy of University of Southern Maine

Stone and his team heard these complaints and hope many of the changes will fix them. For instance, the vegetables are now steamed, and students can add butter if they want. The grill station has color-coded frying pans for vegan meals (green pans) and allergen-free meals (purple pans).

However, Stone said the potatoes will still be cooked in the same fryer as the chicken.

“Though we anticipate a great opening, I don’t think by any means that we’re going to be perfect when we open,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important that our vegans and vegetarians tell us when we don’t hit the mark, so we can make adjustments to the menu.”

To help identify issues, Stone hopes to recruit a vegan student to sit on USM’s Community Culinary Council, which provides feedback and advice to Sodexo about the dining hall food.

Many of the new vegan dishes on the Brooks Dining Hall menu come from the Humane Society of the United State’s Forward Food program, which held a free training in June for 15 Sodexo staffers from local colleges. In addition to USM, Sodexo employees attending the training came from UMF, MECA, SMCC and Rivier University in Nashua, New Hampshire.

“A majority of the training was spent in the kitchen creating meals with ingredients that are not only delicious but healthy for students and the planet alike,” said Forward Food manager Stefanie Heath, who helped organize the training. “The chefs made savory dishes like avocado burrito bowls and cauliflower buffalo wings and decadent desserts like chocolate cobbler and coconut and pineapple rice pudding.”

At MECA on Congress Street in Portland, the college’s cafe has offered robust vegan options for years. Pam Ryder, who manages MECA’s dining services, said the training added more than 200 vegan recipes to the kitchen’s repertoire. New vegan dishes at MECA this year include French toast casserole, chickpea hash, avocado chimichurri, and jackfruit and lentil jambalaya, she said.

Over at SMCC’s Oceanside Dining Hall, the chefs plan to transition the International Station to a Plant Forward Station, featuring vegan dishes such as hash brown arepas with red bean chili, tempeh butternut squash noodle bake, chicken fried tofu grits with bechamel, and vegan hoppin’ John with cornbread, according to college spokesperson Clarke Canfield.

Up at UMF, new vegan dishes this fall in the South Dining Hall include carrot osso bucco with creamy polenta, spinach and butternut kibbeh, and green chili jackfruit nachos. UMF’s executive chef Douglass Winslow said the Forward Food training gave him a new perspective on who will be eating the new vegan options since the training emphasized that vegan food is something all students can enjoy.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with Bowdoin College’s dining director Mary Lou Kennedy in 2015. She said that as the college served more vegan and vegetarian dishes, all the students ate more plant-based meals. “When you see other people around you are eating a lot of fruits and vegetables,” Kennedy told me then, “you start making more choices like that.”

Which leads me to conclude that this semester, a lot more college students in Maine will be eating their vegetables. And their jackfruit.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

 


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