Do Cafeterias Need Better Vegetarian Options?

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A little-publicized caucus of Capitol Hill aides -- the Congressional Vegetarian Staff Association -- is set to convene again Friday as part of its persistent campaign to get better vegetarian food options put on the Capitol eatery menus.

Guest speakers at the event in the Capitol Visitor Center will be the reigning Miss D.C., Bindhu Pamarthi, and Denise Hicks, founder of vegan caterer Postmodern Foods.

So, what does a beauty queen have to do with menus in the Capitol’s House and Senate cafeterias?

“Both women will talk about why they chose to build cruelty-free businesses -- Ms. Pamarthi has her own line of vegan cosmetics, and Ms. Hicks uses all-natural vegan ingredients. She’ll be catering the event with sandwiches and samples of her healthy juice,” said Adam Sarvana, communications director for Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.

Then, next Tuesday, the caucus and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine are hosting a catered lunch and speaking event featuring U.S. Olympic swimmer Kate Ziegler; Ironman and ultramarathon champion Brendan Brazier; Olympian and tae kwon do world champion Daba Modibo Keita; and sports media personality Chuck Carroll.

According to Sarvana, these gatherings are the latest forays growing out of an uprising started in early 2013 by a few congressional staffers disappointed in the vegetarian offerings available at Capitol cafeterias. Their group got official recognition when freshman Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a practicing Hindu, agreed to sponsor it as a caucus, a designation that allows use of Capitol facilities for meetings and events.

Today, the group’s email list includes more than 100 names, Sarvana said.

“I’ve been a vegetarian for my entire life,” Gabbard said in a statement from her office Tuesday. “Healthy eating and practice of yoga play a critical role in my overall well-being, especially with the hectic schedule I have.”

She added that the Congressional Vegetarian Staff Association “is a great organization that has had a great amount of interest since its inception, and has raised awareness on Capitol Hill about the health and environmental benefits of vegetarianism.

“It can also be a fun way for people to sample delicious, healthy food and see that there are other dietary options available that taste good and are good for you!” Gabbard said.

But caucus members, past and present, say battles continue to be waged with regard to the Capitol’s eateries.

“I helped start it,” Michael Shank, a former communications director for Rep. Mike Honda, a California Democrat, said of the group’s beginnings.

Shank recalls that he and other staffers who were upset at a lack of what they saw as sufficient offerings for vegetarians wrote a letter to Restaurant Associates, the New York City–based company that runs the Capitol cafeterias, asking for a meeting to talk about improving the food options.

“We found their response was insufficient. They did respond but responded by claiming there were sufficient options,” Shank said. “So now it’s a full-fledged movement.”

The issue was more pressing with regard to the cafeterias on the House side of the Capitol complex, Sarvana and Shank both said.

Initially, they said, a basic complaint was that the primary protein available on the House side was tofu, and even then it was too often fried. The push was on for other options such as more chickpeas, black beans, brown beans, and lentils.

A spokesman for Restaurant Associates did not return messages Tuesday. “We’re certainly aware of the questions and concerns, and the discussions,” said Dan Weiser, a spokesman for the chief administrative officer of the House, which contracts with the New York company to supply and run the food services on the House side. However, Weis would not elaborate, saying that those discussions are between “the interested parties and Restaurant Associates.”

Both Shank and Sarvana said there has been some improvement since last year. But they say the vegetarian staff association needs to continue pressing its case and holding group events to raise the profile of the issue so that improvements continue.

So, as part of that, the group has sponsored activities with celebrities such as actress Marilu Henner, medical doctors, and vegan cookbook authors.

“They’ve done a lot more to spruce up the Longworth Cafeteria,” Sarvana said.

“But what we really want is a dedicated window for vegetarians -- at least once a week -- where all the food is absolutely vegetarian,” he said. “But they’ve balked at that. They say their market research shows that won’t sell.”

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