The truth behind Wadham’s alleged decision to go vegan.
By Caroline Jackson
In early June, the news that Wadham College planned to serve only vegan meals five nights a week hit the headlines. Readers of the university's own red top, The Tab, devoured the story, which declared the news "a shock defeat for carnivorous Wadhamites". Beyond the headlines, however, this idea has generated a veritable smorgasbord of comment — supportive, derisive and everything in between.
Of all Oxford University's 44 colleges and permanent private halls, Wadham has one of the largest undergraduate bodies with a pre-eminent and much-prized reputation for strident political activism. Described in the university's Alternative Prospectus as "one of the most diverse and inclusive colleges", Wadham is, to date, the only college to have replaced the usual separate representation of Junior and Middle Common Rooms with a progressive, combined Student Union. In March this year, that Student Union voted to introduce 'Meat-Free Mondays' in a gesture towards combating climate change. After discussion with, and approval from, the College Food Committee, so-called 'Veggie Mondays' were implemented from the end of April during term time for student dinners in Hall.
Leaving aside questions as to whether the methane produced by meat and dairy cattle is agreed as a scientifically proven factor in global warming — though it seems it could be — the original motion put before the Student Union was proposed by an engineering finalist, James Kenna, as "a statement of Wadham's commitment to the cause and the kind of drastic change that needs to be made". This might have remained his parting, and reasonably palatable, shot — had not the Student Union subsequently revisited the idea with the suggestion that the college serve only vegetarian food four nights a week. Second-year historian Ben Szreter, extrapolating, proposed a mischievous further amendment. He pointed out that "The argument for vegetarianism, in this context, had a logical end with veganism or even perhaps not eating at all". As a result, Wadham's Student Union voted at the end of the recent Trinity term to go the whole hog and mandate the Hall to serve only vegan food five nights a week.
On the University's website, Wadham is described as providing "a full service of good quality meals". Whatever the cuisine, there are no formal halls nor Latin graces at Wadham, just dinner. The college's current website states that a £4.27 set price, two course dinner in Hall or the college's New Refectory is included in the student charge for 'Board and Lodging'. It adds "Let us know in advance if you need vegetarian meals". Until recent months, similar alternative provision was available across the university. It's ironic that Wadham's pioneering Student Union has, by virtue of its second, June decision — retrospectively claimed to have been a joke — found itself in the soup for limiting its members' freedom to eat what they choose. Rumours, in press and online, rapidly became legion: boom times forecast for Oxford's notorious kebab vans; lean times for Wadham's admissions office.
So, the story of Wadham's dietary direction mushroomed unhelpfully in the press. The contradictions, complications and possible consequences inherent in the decision became so evident that on 8th July, the College authorities and Student Union put a joint statement on the college website "in response to rumours circulating on social media". It states that "despite the recent motion, Wadham will not be serving vegan-only food five days a week". Inclusivity is, for the time being, back on the menu.
Julia Banfield, Head of Communications at Wadham, explains that "there's not much to add to the story until the start of next term, when the student Food Rep and Student Union President Lucy Halton will present the motion at the Food Committee where it will be discussed". Meanwhile, it's a measure of the unexpected level of controversy and interest in the subject that Wadham's Warden, Ken Macdonald QC, has stated that "while every effort is made to accommodate specific dietary needs, the College has no plans to serve exclusively vegan food". While it's hoped that numerous potential non-vegan applicants to the college have not been deterred, Domestic Bursar, Frances Lloyd, adds that "the College is reluctant to exclude any dietary tastes or requirements, preferring to offer students a choice of all food types, including meat, vegetarian and vegan meals."
Deliberately controversial or genuinely well-intentioned, Wadham's veer towards veganism was perhaps more pie-in-the-sky than anything more substantial.