You know how it goes at most catering counters: you line up, get to the front and see what’s cooking today. If there’s lasagne, it’s a meat one. If there’s a vegetarian option, you have to ask for it. That’s how it usually goes. Meat is normal, vegetarians and vegans are the special cases. It was like that when I was at school, and it’s like that at my kids’ school now.
What if it was the other way round, and the vegetarian option was the default?
That’s the simple idea advocated by Default Veg, a campaign to encourage more sustainable diets. “Whenever your organisation provides food, it is vegetarian and vegan. Individuals who want a meat or fish option can request one, so no one feels like they’ve had their choices limited.”
It’s a small change, but a potentially powerful one. It makes meat-free food normal. It breaks down the usually unspoken assumption that a meal involves meat of some description. At the same time, the meat option is there for those who want it, so nobody is being compelled to give up foods they like.
A number of organisations have signed up already, most of them universities – York St John’s, Lancaster, Durham. The climate communications group Climate Nexus are on board. (The US site is in beta and launching soon)
There are some names I’d like to see on this list. I won’t name them, but I was in the work canteen of a development NGO recently that is doing some great work on climate and the environment overseas. That work didn’t seem to have influenced menu choices in the office, and I was surprised to find very few meat-free options. Default Veg is a good solution here. Your dedicated meat eaters won’t be deprived, but the sustainability of your cafeteria will take a big step forward.
When it comes down to it, most people are happy enough with the vegetarian food. I was speaking to David Clough from CreatureKind about the idea, and he says that there is often fairly low take-up of the meat option, so Default Veg can dramatically reduce meat consumption. There can be peer pressure involved as well – you’d have to be fairly bold to request the meat at a climate conference.
The idea presents a healthy challenge for caterers and chefs too. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you will have noticed that your option often looks like an afterthought, and it may be getting less attention than the ‘main’ dishes. Going veg by default might inspire kitchens to skill up on their plant based meals, learn some new recipes, and give more thought to their offer.
If you have a work, school or university cafeteria, or if you find yourself ordering food in sometimes, take a look at the Default Veg campaign, and send a link to your boss.
- Feature image by Jonathan Borba