University bucks convention in Texas with vegan dining hall

DENTON, Texas Wed Aug 31, 2011 2:00pm EDT

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DENTON, Texas (Reuters) - Texas cattle country seems an odd place to break new ground in veganism, but a public university near Dallas is doing just that.

The University of North Texas in Denton, known for its jazz program and hipster vibe, has opened an all-vegan full-service campus cafeteria that it and animal-rights activists say appears to be the first in the nation.

After just a week of school, the lines at "Mean Greens" - a play on the UNT Mean Green football team name - snaked out the door.

Students balanced plates of paninis made with fresh focaccia baked at the cafeteria, roasted vegetables, vegetarian sushi, bowls of asparagus soup, glasses of flavored vitamin waters and shot glasses of bananas foster. The hall doesn't serve any animal products including meat, milk or eggs.

"It's healthy. I was trying not to gain the freshman 15, but I actually like it," said Rebecca Arroyo, a freshman from Paris, Texas, who isn't vegan.

The university food czars who masterminded the unusual venue in one of five campus dining halls are finding many of the students who eat there are not vegans but simply want to eat healthy meals.

Animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals agreed, and gave UNT its Compassionate Campus award this month for responding to student requests and supporting veganism, said Ryan Huling, manager of college campaigns for PETA2, the college arm of the organization.

OUTSIDE INTEREST

Ken Botts, special projects director at UNT dining services, has fielded inquiries from schools as far off as Germany and as close as Dallas.

Surveys by food services providers such as Bon Appetit and Aramark have shown rising demand for vegan fare. Huling said Aramark's survey of hundreds of schools indicated one in four students were actively seeking vegan options.

Inside Mean Greens, the ambiance is as modern as the menu. The hall is decorated with bold, contemporary graphics in shades of tangerine, lime green and red. Quotes from Gandhi and Einstein line the tops of two walls.

Chef Wanda White, a classically trained pastry chef, puts together imaginative menus, like biscuits with chocolate gravy, and specialty pancakes for breakfast.

Among the 20 dishes at lunch are vegetables that are oven-roasted and then quickly seared on the griddle in full view of the diners -- open-concept dining, cafeteria style.

Another innovation is the use of plates instead of standard-issue cafeteria trays, which cut both waste and water usage by 40 percent, Botts said. That change is being considered at some of UNT's other four dining halls.

It's not all peaches and nondairy cream for everyone, though. Staffer Kent Boring was unimpressed with the fettuccine Alfredo, though conceded that the butter-and-cheese-based dish would be hard to duplicate sans dairy.

But almost everyone was leaving with cones of soy-based soft-serve ice cream, a natural choice in the sweltering first week of school.

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