Last year Turkish Vegetarian Society started a campaign to determine the vegetarian population in Turkey and the results were inconclusive. While %5 of the western world population is estimated to have a non-meat diet, such research is hard to conclude in Turkey which is an indicator that being a vegetarian in Turkey is hard. One of the prominent universities of Turkey with a large foreign student and staff population, Bilkent is no exception to this. Even though there are many Bilkenter vegetarians, they state food choices are not satisfactory. Usually when vegetarians meet other vegetarians/vegans/pescetarians (vegetarians who eat sea food) their first thought is to share hardly obtained information about safe choices- aka restaurants that serve quality vegetarian food. But their experiences and the interview with one of the most popular cafeterias on campus reflect the lack of sensitivity about the issue.
Metin Öztürk is the manager of Speed. He is very friendly to the point of remembering regular customers eating habits. While he was cleaning the tables after the rush hour (aka lunch break) I had a chance to talk to him about students eating habits, demand for vegetarian food and overall hygiene of the cooking staff.
“Less demand for vegetarian options”
Mr. Öztürk is a very hands-on manager. He assesses the quality of the food, runs the register at buffet and helps cleaning up the tables. When asked about the demand for vegetarian options he said “That was why we started the buffet. More options for vegetarians and vegans.” But Mr. Öztürk also added “There were a lot more vegetarian students last year. This year we don’t get the same demand. But still we try to offer more options for people with different diets.”
“I don’t know any manager who would do this.”
As the interview came to an end Mr. Öztürk shared his thoughts about the possibility of improving the food courts by putting labels next to meals to ensure their vegetarian/allergen status and he was very skeptical about the issue. “I wish we could do that but nobody cares about it. I don’t know any manager on campus who would put effort in this.”
Shortcomings of Marmara
While Speed Cafe offers many options for vegetarians/vegans, it is a little pricey. Two years ago, a change.org campaign led by student Fırat Yılmaz demanded affordable vegetarian options in Marmara Cafeteria, and the petition-having 272 signatures- attracted the attention of the faculty members. A year ago vegetarian options are add to Marmara, but there is still certain shortcomings. Vegetarian options are shown in campus meal plan, but somehow whenever I go I find they are either sold out, or inedible. Granted Marmara is an affordable option with dietitian controlled meals, but the conditions of the food (i.e. being prepared and kept next to meat choices) is offsetting. And Marmara staff rarely give a definite answer whether soups or rice have any broth in it.
“Vegan choices are even harder to find ”
Vegetarian students are thrilled about the new steps the cafeterias take, but are still skeptical about the options. Aslı Saçaklı is one of them, she states being a vegetarian is as hard as it is, but vegan options are almost nonexistent. “They put cheese in pastas and salads too. What can a vegan eat in this campus?” she asks. Nurten Çevik is more skeptical about assumingly vegetarian choices. “We can never tell the conditions the meat-free options are made in. It makes finding something to eat really hard. Just because we don’t eat meat doesn’t mean we have to starve.”
Spending three years talking to restaurant managers and other vegetarians, I managed to assemble a list of conscious and safe meal choices in some of the most popular cafes in campus. It should be considered these are not the only choices in given restaurants, but are almost %100 surely prepared in a safe manner.