Like many people, I grew up in a family where meat was always the star of the dinner table. But coming to Penn has made me curious about veganism—the lifestyle choice of not using or consuming animal products—especially since, for the first time in my life, I live in a big city with more vegan food options.
People go vegan a lot of different reasons, ranging from health to ethics to the environment. The environmental concerns over eating meat and dairy are more pressing than ever, as the livestock industry contributes to 18% of global human greenhouse gas emissions and takes up 83% of all farmland. Eating a plant–based diet might be the “single biggest way” to individually help the environment. I wanted to try cutting out animal products from my own diet, so I decided to quit cold turkey for a week to see how challenging it would be.
Day 1: My week of veganism is off to a rough start. I didn’t have much time to grocery shop before going vegan, so for lunch, I eat a microwaved sweet potato with nothing on it. My friend calls it “sad.”
After class, I keep eating chips, non–dairy biscuits, peas, tofu, cereal—mostly everything I already have in the back of my fridge that’s vegan. At the end of the day, I’m still starving. My stomach growls as I walk by a string of restaurants on the way to a meeting, the smell of burgers wafting in the air. "I’m weak," I think to myself.
I come home and see an apple cider donut on the counter, left by my roommate. I stare at it sullenly. It’s taunting me.
Around 11 p.m., I cave and ask my boyfriend to bring me a milkshake from HipCityVeg. I don’t want to rely on eating out on the first day, but I can’t help myself. He brings back McDonald’s for himself. I snag a couple fries without much thought—they’re just potatoes, right? Wrong. McDonalds calls their fries vegan, but this is a contentious issue, due to the "natural beef flavor" in the fries. I consider it cheating—unfortunately, I didn't make it 24 hours.
Day 2: Looking for guidance, I meet up with Vyshnavi Kosigishroff (C ‘22), an avid environmentalist and vegan since high school. We agree to talk in Stommons, but in a brainless moment, I walk to Stouffer Commons instead, which prompts Vyshnavi to ask if I’m a freshman (I’m not, just dumb). I confide in her about my french fry fiasco, and she laughs sympathetically.
“I only cheated when I was really hungry and I didn’t have anything,” she says, advising me to stock up on vegan snacks and staples. “You have to eat more.” She tells me that on the bright side, a lot of snack foods are “accidentally vegan,” like Ritz crackers, Lay’s original chips, and my childhood favorite, Uncrustables.
Following Vyshnavi’s advice, I go to FroGro, cook up what seems like a dinner for three, and eat some snacks on top of it.
Day 3: I go to V Street for lunch and order tempeh tacos, a welcome relief from my own less than stellar cooking. The only drawback is the bill. I still don’t feel completely satisfied after eating, but I think I’m getting the hang of it.
Day 4: It’s the weekend, and I finally have a few hours to cook a big, filling meal. I follow a recipe for vegan lentil stew and spend my evening chopping onions, potatoes, carrots, and celery. The onions make me cry profusely, but in the end, the tears are worth it. My stew is delicious, and I’m actually looking forward to leftovers.
Day 5: I treat myself to the Magic Carpet food truck near Meyerson Hall. One great upside of this experiment is getting to try places I usually wouldn’t visit. I used to feel like there wasn’t a reason to eat at vegetarian or vegan restaurants if I wasn’t one myself, but it turns out I’ve been limiting my options.
Day 6: On the day of Penn’s first snowfall of the semester, I hurry over to Hill to eat dinner at the dining hall with a friend. Being a sophomore living off campus means that, luckily, I have a kitchen, but freshmen and plenty of others don’t. It’s not truly “being vegan at Penn” if I don’t see what it’s like to be vegan at a dining hall.
As I walk down Walnut, burying my face deep into my scarf to avoid the wind, I’m not too optimistic. Vyshnavi tells me that while she thought Hill House and Kings Court English House were decent, she ended up spending “a lot of money” freshman year on outside food—the often soggy or cheese–covered veggies didn’t cut it on a daily basis.
Once I guest–swipe in, I go straight for the “Very Veggie” food station before browsing through the others. I pile up on black bean soup, pulled jackfruit, banana peel stew, and vegetable rice.
The black bean soup tastes like a rich, savory chili. It’s the first thing I finish, and it gives me hope as I try the other foods. Sadly, the banana peel stew is incredibly spicy without much depth, and the pulled jackfruit is so sour, it makes my lips pucker. In an effort to bring flavor to its vegan dishes, the dining hall overloads on salt and spice.
If I were a full–time vegan on a dining plan, I think I’d be eating mostly bread and salad, and spending a lot on food trucks.
Day 7: It’s almost bedtime when I remember that my week of veganism is almost over. It’s strange—I don’t really feel like I’m missing out anymore. I started off the week hungry and tired, but my body adjusted quickly to the changes.
I’m not in a huge rush to eat non–vegan food again. Although avoiding dairy is a bit of a hassle, I don’t feel the need to go out and get a burger tomorrow. I used to think meat was irreplaceable, but now giving it up feels like a relatively small sacrifice.
One downside is that eating a plant–based diet did turn out to be more expensive. Because I didn’t have prep time and didn’t realize I’d get so hungry, I ended up going to FroGro three days in a row, which ate up a good part of my paycheck. But now that I’ve got more vegan staples in my pantry, I think the costs will eventually even out.
Day 8: The first non–vegan food I eat in a week is hot chocolate with milk, a comfort I’ve missed in the cold weather.
I’m grateful for this experiment because now I know I can be vegan. I’m going to keep eating vegetarian and see how it goes. Since I’ve done it for a week, it no longer seems impossible. The last thing Vyshnavi told me was that you don’t have to be perfect to be helpful.
"Just one day of you not eating meat—or one meal if that’s not your norm ... helps the environment in kind of unfathomable ways,” she says. “There’s a tangible benefit to what you’re doing.”