V for Villanova - and vegan food in campus dining halls

Tim Dietzler, head of dining services at Villanova University, went vegan on a 30-day challenge five years ago and has stuck with it.

AS DINING HALLS go vegan-friendlier to meet millennial tastes, Villanova University stands out as one of the pioneers, led by dining services director Tim Dietzler: He took student feedback seriously enough to try eating vegan and wound up going vegan himself.

Now the school has a health-focused Villanova Eats Great (VEG) program that's won national attention. The youth-focused animal-activism site Peta2 gave Villanova an A+ in its Vegan Report Card on collegiate offerings (see sidebar).

A wave of dining-hall menu upgrades is addressing millennials' documented preference for more health, transparency, and choices in food. The first all-vegan college dining cafeteria, called Mean Greens, started at the University of North Texas in 2011, and the Culinary Institute of America has launched Menus of Change to educate and encourage healthier, more plant-based offerings.

Villanova's program serves 4,600 students plus staff, faculty, and visitors from 7 a.m. till 2 a.m. daily. The program's four pillars are: Make Fruit and Vegetables the Center of Your Plate; Increase Water & Reduce Sugary Beverage Intake; Increase Your Whole Grain Intake; and Decrease Your Animal Protein Intake.

The big dining halls all have a featured vegan item for every meal, and all dinner menus include vegan entrées. Recent selections at a Farm to Fork Dinner included a Southwest Garbanzo and Black Bean Burger and Spicy Tortellini Primavera.

In the spring, chefs compete in Veggie Mania to develop new plant-based dishes. This month, the program is highlighting vegan dishes with special signage and social-media pushes for World Vegan Month.

Former Villanova student and longtime vegan Hiba Abousleiman said Dietzler has always been responsive to student feedback. "I sent Tim one email suggesting hummus at the salad bar, and within a week, it was there," she recalled. "Every suggestion I made, he followed up on immediately."

She added: "It was thanks to him that vegan options increased exponentially."

Dietzler said that the idea is "to give students variety, tweak it along plant-forward lines." His own shift, he said, is largely thanks to Abousleiman, who challenged him "to go vegan for 30 days in our dining halls to see what it was like."

Walking through the 18 campus food operations in a vegan's shoes, Dietzler also educated himself about concerns with food's "footprint." Abousleiman shared documentaries on animal agriculture's prominent role in global warming and on the health strides made with the whole-food, plant-based diet. While his knowledge grew, Dietzler found his taste buds evolving as well.

Having assumed he'd be more than ready to jump back into the heavy salt, saturated fat, and cholesterol realm of animal-protein eating at the end of his 30-day experiment, Dietzler surprised himself.

"I never went back," he said. "I've been vegan for five years now."

Said Abousleiman: "Our taste buds crave what we feed them. I really have not had a craving for a nonvegan food in over five years."

Dietzler, meanwhile, forged ahead with plant-forward momentum. There was last week's vegan-centric Farm to Fork Dinner. Also last month, Villanova hosted a culinary symposium to train university cooking staff in plant-based recipes. Coordinated by the food-policy division of the Humane Society of the United States, the sessions were led by Ken Botts and Wanda White, the two key players in creating Mean Greens five years ago in Texas.

Dietzler saw the symposium as an opportunity for "our chefs to get creative in the kitchen. The goal is to make the food as delicious as possible," perhaps enticing nonvegan students to try plant-based options more often. He noted that not all the vegan foods get that label, because "sometimes that turns off nonvegans," but ingredients are listed for all dishes. "We do a vegan version General Tso's Chicken - it's seitan. People can read the ingredients and figure out pretty easily."

Villanova's vegan-friendly initiatives continue to gain popularity with most dining-hall eaters. "This isn't good only for vegans, but in general for the Villanova student body," Abousleiman observed of Dietzler's efforts, including setting up another vegan training session for this winter. "Everybody - vegan or otherwise - benefits from having access to more healthy and plant-based options."

As vegan and vegan-curious college kids graduate into the mainstream marketplace, plant-based foods are quietly becoming mainstream. That's why the smartest programs preparing young folks for the world ahead are increasingly turning plant-forward.

Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist,

writer, musician, and 15-year vegan.

"V for Veg" chronicles plant-based

eating in and around Philadelphia.

VforVeg@phillynews.com or

@V4Veg