Tired of being the only vegan in the office or feel like your workplace could be doing more to accommodate vegans? Dr Ishani Rao explores how we can encourage our workplaces to be more vegan...
I am a final-year GP trainee working across Kent hospitals and am keen to find ways to make our workplaces more accommodating to vegans.
I have a strong interest in sustainability and lifestyle medicine and enjoy trawling through scientific studies to provide evidence-based and peer-reviewed data in order to convince my NHS workspace that we should have better access to plant-based menus.
During the pandemic, I worked 13-hour shifts on COVID wards and in busy A&Es and I was absolutely horrified at the lack of vegan options for both staff and patients.
How can we be expected to be taken seriously as healthcare professionals when we are serving highly processed foods lacking in nutrients essential for healing and optimal function? How is it acceptable that we are serving people meat that the WHO has classified as a class 1 carcinogen- in the same league as asbestos and tobacco1?
Persistence pays off
Feeling rather frustrated and ‘hangry’, I made it my mission to increase the variety of plant-based options in the canteen. Many of my vegan colleagues had expressed the same frustrations, and I felt really motivated and excited about the positive change that introducing vegan options could have on both health and sustainability.
Surely everybody would be on board with having delicious, nutritious, and environmentally-friendly options! I enthusiastically and naïvely composed a long email with many cheap and colourful meal suggestions, alongside vegan menus that I had found from other hospitals via the brilliant Facebook page ‘Vegan Hospitals Food Network.’ It would be easy, right?
You won’t be surprised to know that I was very, very wrong. It took me a whole year of emailing and calling the procurement department, the catering team and the dieticians before people stopped passing me from department to department, denying any responsibility or ability to make change.
I eventually got through to someone who was only interested in what I had to say after I compiled all of the criticism the lack of vegan options was attracting from my colleagues and patients. This seemed to be a good tactic and I plan on using this more when I want to elicit any changes in large-scale organisations.
The procurement team promised me that they would be more mindful when I reminded them that veganism is a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act of 2010, and that not providing adequate meal options is a form of discrimination.
If at first you don't succeed, don't give up. Change takes time, especially in larger companies. Providing catering teams with honest feedback that shows the demand for vegan food can be an effective way to get their attention. Photo © People Images via Getty Images
I started to visit the canteen every day and would give positive verbal and written feedback when there was anything vegan, and daily negative feedback when there wasn’t so that they understood how serious I was about the matter.
In the process of that I became acquainted with the canteen’s cook, and he was actually quite interested in what I had to say – I think it was a fun culinary challenge for him. Over the next few months he regularly cooked delicious vegan lasagnes and pasta bakes and chillis and stir fries and burgers and veg tempura! I had some amazing, filling and healthy meals, and sometimes there was even a choice of food.
I presented my success at the brilliant EcoMedics conference and their first quality improvement project, ‘The plant-based canteen’ is available on their website with structured advice about how best to approach your workplace about implementing vegan options.
Since then I have been asked to host over 10 NHS talks to the leads of sustainability across Kent about the benefits of introducing plant based diets at work.
Speak to the canteen cook to give feedback and suggestions about adding vegan options to the menu. Photo © New Africa via Adobe Stock
However, since my work in the hospital, I have moved into general practice and have now been told that the vegan options in the canteen are virtually non-existent again.
Ironically, I have also been met with a lot of resistance with some of the leads of sustainability for Kent; they bluntly and disappointingly stated, ‘You can’t control what people eat’.
I am now in talks with one of the vegan sustainability leads to have this written into an organisational policy change, starting with something simple like ‘Meatless Mondays’.
Highlighting the progress being made in other large organisations (the 11 New York public hospitals that have pledged to go vegan, Edinburgh becoming the first European capital to sign the Plant Based Treaty, the Universities of Stirling, Queen Mary’s University London and Cambridge voting to remove meat from campuses) is another tactic that should be employed to persuade organisations that this is, in fact, not an unattainable option.
It’s undeniable that large organisations need to take accountability for the moral and environmental impact of what they provide the general public to eat.
Highlight the progress made by other large organisations to encourage your employer to get with the times. Photo © fizkes via Adobe Stock
Saving money and the planet
While many may worry there isn’t enough demand for vegan options, according to the the hospital chef there was no more food waste and no higher costs with the introduction of plant-based options to the menu.
In fact, a large-scale recent study by Oxford University confirmed that a vegan diet can reduce food expenditure by a third across low, middle and high-income countries, debunking the myth that vegan food must be more expensive2.
Although ideally we should consider the carbon footprint of a food product, and therefore its long-term cost consequences, we cannot ignore that large organisations operate as businesses and will be primarily looking at the short-term financial implications.
It is therefore important to suggest brands with similar pricing, such as Co-op’s GRO range, which pledges to price-match its meat and dairy counterparts. Long-life milk alternatives can also be very affordable, can be bulk-bought and can be stored at room temperature.
Vegan options are often more affordable, so showing your workplace that going vegan can help cut costs can be a helpful approach to take. Photo © Xsandra via Getty Images
One interesting conversation with my GP supervisor elicited that although she is not vegan, she is anxious to take the vegan option at work events as often the quantity is limited and she does not want a vegan to be short of food. I fed this back to the catering team and asked my supervisor to also get in touch, and they subsequently increased the amount of vegan options available.
If your workplace is not keen to try this, then it might be worth finding out prior to work events if other people would be interested to try the plant-based options, and encouraging them to request this in advance.
Lead by example
We are all aware that when vegan options are available, non-vegans enjoy them and always remember how good they were! An easy and obvious solution to leave a lasting impression is to simply bring in plant-based snacks to the workplace, dismantling the assumption that vegans only eat tofu and salad.
Another simple and sneaky tactic to employ is to make sure that you eat your appealing food in common areas, inciting food envy and curiosity! This tactic has been successful in converting many friends and family members over the years.
Now that I am in one work environment for a long period of time rather than rotating specialities every few months as a junior doctor, I am excited to start trying to convert my colleagues. We must remember the importance of both a bottom-up individual approach as well as top-down, policy-targeted methods.
The psychology of eliciting change is fascinating and, as far as I have found, very unpredictable. Some people respond well and are very receptive to being informed about the health, ethical and environmental implications of the dairy and meat industries.
Incite food envy among your colleagues by showing the delicious vegan meals you're eating at lunchtime. Photo © Monkey Business via Adobe Stock
On the other hand, some people become very defensive and critical of an approach to the same information delivered in the same manner. We know that food is a highly sensitive topic- at present, one third of the British public are classified as obese, and almost 10% of women will develop an eating disorder at some point in their lives3.
Trying to find what motivates change in people is a challenging skill and I would recommend not becoming disheartened if you feel as though you are not getting anywhere; simply to take a break in order to avoid activist burnout and then change tactic.
Often directly asking people what their barriers to change are (social support, time constraints, finances, addiction, comfort-eating due to mental health issues, a lack of knowledge about cooking) is insightful and effective.
Many people often do not even know where to start and this is where resources from organisations such as Plant Based Health Professionals, The Vegan Society, PETA, Viva! and Happy Cow can be useful.
Food is a sensitive topic, so take the time to listen to people without judgement when they explain why they might find going vegan difficult. Photo © 10'000 Hours via Getty Images
The last point that I will consider is my favourite, as a scientist and medical doctor. We may inherently and whole-heartedly just know that veganism is the right thing to do, from our interactions with animals, the fact that feeding a cow to feed to a human is less energy efficient than simply feeding a human, and that we feel a lot better in ourselves after having eliminated animal products from our diets.
However, many people still want cold, hard facts and scientific data to prove that this is a sensible path to take. Until now, there have been many vested interests and political agendas behind published papers, with much data sponsored by the animal agriculture industry and skewed by the mainstream media.
However, now vegan organisations are also obtaining the funding to perform large-scale studies and to have work published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
Huge papers are coming out that should be made public knowledge; such as a study of over 3 million people published in 2022 that showed that the risk of gastrointestinal (pancreatic, colorectal, colon, rectal, gastric, liver, and oesophageal) cancer was significantly reduced in those that adopted a plant-based diet4.
Vegan organisations are now obtaining the funding to perform large-scale studies which are helpful tools to use when persuading workplaces with reasons why they should offer more plant-based options. Photo © Tomas Skopal via Adobe Stock
Another 2022 study published by the European Association for the Study of Obesity that analysed 11 randomised control trials (our gold-standard of scientific research) found that adhering to a vegan diet for even just 12 weeks could improve blood sugar control in adults with type 2 diabetes5.
Over 130,000 people were followed up over 30 years and a major study published in JAMA Internal Medicine Journal demonstrated that consumption of animal protein led to a higher risk of death from all causes, especially with regards to heart disease6.
If we consider the massive burden of preventable chronic illness attributed to poor quality of nutrition, leading to reduced quality of life and increased sick days, it would only be in our workplace’s best interest to improve access to healthy and delicious vegan food.
This is a systemic and cultural issue that requires time, commitment, good communication and perseverance; but if we remember the many successes that we are having in various large-scale workplaces and organisations across the world, it’s a cause to keep fighting for.
Does your employer need an extra push to offer vegan options in the workplace?
Prove plant-based doesn’t have to cost the earth with these cheap vegan meals!
Featured image credit: AzmanL via Getty Images
- International Agency for Research on Cancer, WHO. Press release number 240, 2015.
- The global and regional costs of healthy and sustainable dietary patterns: a modelling study, Springmann et al. The Lancet Planetary Health, 2021.
- National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, Clinical Knowledge Summaries. (Eating disorders, Background information, Prevalence.)
- The relationship between plant-based diet and risk of digestive system cancers, Zhao et al. Frontiers in Public Health, 2022.
- Vegan diets boost weight loss, lower blood sugar in adults with overweight or type 2 diabetes. European Association for the Study of Obesity, 2022.
- Association of animal and plant protein intake with all-cause and cause-specific mortality, Song et al. JAMA Internal Medicine, 2016.