Consumption Conundrum: Food Labels in 5C Dining

For many of us, the distinction between ‘food’ and ‘not food’ is relatively straightforward: Everything served in the dining halls is food, and most other things are not food.

However, for those of us with dietary restrictions, making that distinction isn’t always so easy. I have been a vegetarian for my entire life, so I have grown up regarding meat the same way most people regard dirty pine needles: not food.

Yes, continuing to be a vegetarian is a choice, and one that I make for a variety of ethical, health-related and environmental reasons. However, it is so normative for me that I do not consider ‘trying out’ meat any more than I would trying dirty pine needles or anything else I consider inedible.

This can make choosing meals in the dining hall slightly more difficult. Many items that appear appetizing at first turn out not to be food because they contain meat. That quiche is not food, since it contains pork; that soup is not food, since it was made with a beef broth; that rice crispy is not food, since it has marshmallows, which contain gelatin. 

It is as if a large portion of the foods in the dining halls contained dirty pine needles: If there is even a small amount of uncertainty as to whether or not a dish is vegetarian, I will feel very uncomfortable eating it.

This is where food labels come in. They are the map that guides me through the minefield of non-vegetarian foods. Whenever I see a dish labeled as vegetarian, I know that I can regard it as food and feel comfortable eating it.

Of course, my attitudes towards meat apply only on a personal level. Living in a society in which most people eat meat, I became accustomed to seeing others eat meat long ago. Although I may hope that more people adopt vegetarian diets, I understand that people are entitled to make their own choices. This does give vegetarians fewer options, but I understand that the needs of the majority must be given preference over those of the minority. But just because we vegetarians are outnumbered doesn’t mean that our dietary restrictions should be ignored. 

Overall, I’ve been very impressed with the number of vegetarian alternatives offered in most of the dining halls (and even more so in the Athenaeum). However, good labeling ensures that those with dietary restrictions are able to take advantage of the foods that are available to them and don’t have their options limited further because they are afraid to eat foods that they think might violate their diets.

I know that it can seem silly that lemonade is labeled as vegan or that tuna salad is tagged as containing fish. However, including these seemingly obvious labels can still be helpful, since there are many foods that appear vegetarian but actually are not. For instance, many grapefruit juices are colored using carmine, a dye derived from the cochineal insect. Therefore, I do not assume that pink grapefruit juice is vegetarian. In a supermarket, I could just check the ingredients, but since that option is not available in a dining hall, seeing the vegetarian label is a reassurance.

Although most of the dishes I have encountered in 5C dining halls have been adequately labeled, there is room for improvement across the board—in some places more than others. From my own (admittedly limited) experiences, Pomona and Scripps have usually done a decently good job at labeling, but Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd and Pitzer have been prone to lapses.

These lapses lead not only to frustration and discomfort, but occasionally to waste as well; more than once I have been forced to discard a dish on my plate because it was unlabeled and I discovered after poking around that it contained meat.

Despite all this, I am still quite privileged compared to some. Were I to accidentally eat meat, I would feel extremely uncomfortable. However, for students with severe allergies, the consequences of accidentally violating their diets due to poor labels could be life-threatening.

Labeling dishes is an extremely small and easy thing to do, but it can make a big difference for those of us with dietary restrictions. So, the next time you visit a dining hall, consider the role that food labels play in making the 5C’s an inclusive place for all people, no matter their diet. 

Samuel Breslow PO '18 is from Londonderry, N.H., and plans to major in the social sciences.