There’s Never Enough of the Vegetarian Option
How to negotiate for better lunch options for all — and how to give up if it doesn’t work
Dear Nice Vegan,
I work at a tech startup that provides free lunch three days a week. There’s always vegetarian and vegan options alongside several options for meat-eaters, but often folks who aren’t necessarily strictly vegetarian still want to eat the vegetarian food option. Which is understandable, and I hope it’s serving as a reminder that food without any dead animals can be delicious too!The problem is that since the catering team seems to expect only a few vegetarians, the meat eaters (who also often grab both a piece of chicken AND a bit of marinated tofu or what have you) often finish off the veg entree before those of us that can’t eat anything else even get there. I’m typically in a meeting when lunch is first called, and more often than not I’m just left with a vegetable side like mashed potatoes or a bit of salad next to an empty tray of delicious vegetarian protein that’s been completely decimated.
I feel weird complaining about free food, but it would be nice if there was enough of the stuff I can eat to go around — how can I raise this without seeming ungrateful?
I’ve been there (quite literally!) and my advice is simple, if not failproof. Ultimately, this isn’t something you can totally control, and whether the problem is solved will depend on the response of other people. If it doesn’t work, you’ll have to just let it go (more on that in a moment).
You should chat with other vegetarians and vegans at your workplace and see if this issue is on the minds of other folks — it probably is. Then, you should nominate one person — that could be you, or if there’s a more senior person at the office who shares your concerns they might have the best chance — to speak to the team that orders lunches and request more of the vegetarian option on behalf of the group. The best solution is obviously one where meat-eaters can have as much tofu or tempeh as they want and vegetarians don’t end up with nothing to eat 20 minutes after lunch starts — they should order more vegetarian food. The advocate should express gratitude that there are great vegetarian options provided in the first place, and could gently suggest that perhaps an audit could be done to see if you are correct that the vegetarian option is disappearing faster than everything else. There’s nothing office managers love more than an audit!
They might respond positively and start moving to change things up or at least monitor the situation, but you should be prepared for the possibility that they’ll say that they’re worried that meat-eaters will be next to complain if there’s less meat at the communal table. And they might be right! These folks likely deal with many conflicting requests and restrictions as they work to provide food for everyone, and your perspective on it may be limited by your own experiences. It’s important to be respectful and deferential to their concerns, because if you’re just another person who wants it their way, you’re more likely to just be ignored. When I worked in an office, I once gently suggested we could have an all-vegetarian meal once a month and was told that the facilities staff had a similar idea once but that meat-eaters on staff, particularly folks following certain weight-loss diets, had thrown a fit about it, saying there needed to be meat at every meal (🙄).
Another option that might be proposed is for the vegetarians and vegans to have a separate line or be called first so that they have access to the veg-food first before meat eaters choose it as a side or on a whim. Obviously, this could mostly solve your problem but is still kind of annoying — why shouldn’t meat eaters be able to enjoy a vegetarian meal as often as they like? Still, for now, I recommend letting go and accepting this solution as an improvement on the current situation. If meat eaters want to complain that they want more veg, let that be their fight.
Then there’s the possibility that the team will just say that changing the current order won’t work, and that you should make it to lunch early, or that the lunches are just a bonus perk and you don’t have an inherent right to have your first choice for a free meal. This will obviously be annoying, since clearly your ethics aren’t just a choice you’ve made flippantly, and since everyone else is getting a free lunch, which is essentially part of the compensation at your workplace.
And yet, at that point, I would choose to let it go, and come up with your own solution. Ask a friend who isn’t in as many meetings as you are to grab you a plate of food when lunch is first called, or reschedule your day so you can be there. If you can’t, and the veg options are gone, try to enjoy access to those sides you mentioned (after all, a side is just semantics) — maybe grab some nice hot sauces or a jar of nooch to make those things feel a little more special. Or just buy yourself lunch, if you can afford it. It sucks, but it could be worse — plenty of workplaces provide no meals, and those that do often provide no vegan option at all.
It feels unfair to make what can be harder, more expensive, and more difficult choices to be vegan or vegetarian in a meat-eaters world, but the amount of access you have to free vegetarian food at your job is not especially high on the list of challenges and barriers that many people face when they make this choice. There are vegans and vegetarians struggling with unemployment, living in food deserts, or dealing with constant disapproval from loved ones. You should advocate for yourself, but if a change doesn’t come, count your blessings and spoon up some extra mashed potatoes.
Ask A Nice Vegan is a weekly advice column by Summer Anne Burton, a nice vegan who is also the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the magazine you are reading right now. She can answer questions about any topic that you could use a nice vegan’s advice on, be it food, animals, etiquette, philosophy, gifts, dating, family, weddings, parties, or friendships. Email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org