ROLL CALL 03/15/13
By Emily Cahn

For busy staffers on Capitol Hill, whose hectic days are often scheduled down to the minute, grabbing lunch often means a trip to the cafeterias scattered around the Capitol complex.

Although there are multiple dining spots on the campus’s House and Senate sides, offering everything from Indian cuisine to slow-cooked barbecue, some vegetarian and vegan House staffers say there’s a noticeable lack of healthy proteins and lettuce varieties available to fit their dietary needs.

And they’re doing something about it.

Calling themselves the Vegetarian Caucus, these vegetarian and vegan House staffers penned a letter late last month urging Restaurant Associates, the New York-based food service company that runs most of the eateries in the Capitol complex, to add standing proteins and more nutritious greens to the salad bars on the House side, including black beans, spinach, kale and tofu.

“While the salad bar occasionally has black beans, tofu and chickpeas, all good sources of protein, those options are not always reliable or sufficient,” reads the letter, signed by nine House staffers identifying with the Vegetarian Caucus. “We would like to request that tofu, falafel or other substantive, non-animal protein is offered every day as a salad bar option.”

Michael Shank, communications director for California Democratic Rep. Michael M. Honda and a member of the Vegetarian Caucus, said the letter the group sent to RA was a product of informal conversations between vegetarian and vegan staffers on the House side of the Capitol. He said they all realized that they lamented the lack of vegetarian and vegan options available for lunch at the House eateries when they got together.

“We got into a conversation, and we all started saying, ‘Oh yeah, eating on the Hill has limited options for vegetarians and vegans. We should do something about it,’” said Shank, who has been a vegetarian for 20 years and recently began living a vegan or meat- and dairy-free lifestyle.

Shank said the group received a positive response from RA regarding the concerns. But three weeks after sending the Feb. 22 email, the group has seen no changes in salad bar offerings.

“The essence of what they said is, ‘Hey, we hear you, and we’re committed to attending to your concerns,’” Shank said. “I think it was a positive response, and I think they very clearly heard us and understood the legitimacy of our concern. . . . [But the email was] pretty recent, so they’re probably buying in bulk, and I don’t know how quickly you can change the offerings. So the change remains to be seen.”

RA representatives did not reply to CQ Roll Call’s request for comment.

Shank and other members hope that by going to the press, the Vegetarian Caucus will inspire other vegetarians and vegans on Capitol Hill to join their cause and spread the word to RA leadership.

“There are about a dozen of us right now, and we’re pretty new. This is the first article that talks about us,” Shank said of the Vegetarian Caucus. “We hope that with [this article] there will become increased awareness.”

Adam Kuranishi, a fellow in Honda’s office who is a vegetarian for health reasons, said the group’s next step — if the salad bar offerings are not noticeably changed — is to land a face-to-face meeting with RA representatives to understand the limitations to increasing vegetarian offerings in the cafeterias.

He added that as the population of Capitol Hill becomes more diverse, the cafeteria offerings need to shift to accommodate the changing needs of those who work in Congress.

“As we’re starting to see members of Congress and staff coming from different backgrounds, races and ethnicities, there’s this need to be more inclusive,” said Kuranishi. “I think there needs to be a recognition of the landscape within Capitol Hill by making some incremental shifts [in the cafeterias].”

For now, Kuranishi and Shank said they and other members of the Vegetarian Caucus bring supplemental proteins from home to make up for the lack of options in the cafeterias. However, they said, since they are constituents on Capitol Hill, RA should want their business. Supplying healthier vegetarian options may benefit other staffers and tourists who frequent the eateries, they added.

“If they’re concerned about food going bad, if it’s a demand issue, maybe it’s on us to do a poll to communicate to management,” Shank said of proving the market for vegetarian and vegan offerings. “But often if you provide it, people will come. If tourists come, they will get what’s available to them, and they might consume it just because it’s there.” | @ec2011