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A farewell to ham sandwiches: how a student council can change the UvA

Henk Strikkers,
16 mei 2019 - 09:48

A farewell to bitterballen and ham sandwiches at the Faculty of Humanities: starting this year, all company lunches and snacks at social drinking events are vegetarian by default. This is largely due to the faculty’s student council. How did they manage that? ‘When you have a very ideological opinion, it helps if you translate it into something concrete.’

‘As chair of the student council, I often attend lunches, for example with the faculty board, or with people who are in charge of the University Quarter,’ says student Nuria Zantman (25, Cultural Sciences), a vegetarian herself. ‘I always noticed two things. Firstly, that there is very little choice when you’re a vegetarian. It’s mainly cheese sandwiches, and they run out very quickly. Secondly, there are always so many leftover meat sandwiches, which end up being thrown away. ‘

‘I stumbled across an article about how the Ministry of Education would start offering vegetarian lunches only, and I thought: that would be nice to have at the UvA as well,’ Nuria says. It is not the first time that the Humanities Student Council is working on sustainability. ‘It often concerns much more abstract issues, for example that all buildings in the University Quarter receive an AA sustainability label. That is important, but students likely won’t notice it. I thought it was nice to do something concrete.’

Foto: Nuria Zantman

Cheese or chicken

And so Nuria started writing a letter. ‘There are a couple of lunches at the faculty every week, and about 20 people attending each lunch. If you only serve vegetarian food, you could save a lot of money,’ she says. ‘I was very enthusiastic about my proposal and actually thought: no one can disagree with it.’ But when she discussed it with other members of the student council, a colleague said: “I’ve read that cheese is just as bad for the environment as chicken. Why should we differentiate between the two? Shouldn’t we go for vegan lunches?” I hadn't thought about that. ‘

That’s what makes working together in the student council so fruitful, Nuria says. ‘Your colleagues are highly critical, so you have to do research, review your sources and review your arguments. As a team, you end up writing a very well-argued letter together.’ Nuria wrote, deleted, wrote, deleted again and resubmitted the letter to the student council, which again made adjustments. Eventually the student council asked the board if all lunches could be made vegan from now on.

‘I’ve read that cheese is just as bad for the environment as chicken. Why should we differentiate between the two?’

‘By the time we sent the letter to the faculty board, the letter was so good that I thought: “The board must be really headstrong if they choose to ignore this”.’  Nevertheless, Nuria was nervous before the next meeting with the school board. ‘We had written unsolicited advice and the board does not actually have to do anything with it. Sure, they have to respond, but that can also be something along the lines of: We have received the letter, but we are not going to pursue this because it is not feasible.’

Anyone who touches the coffee or kroket of students or employees must fear for their life at the UvA

She was pretty well prepared. ‘Of course, in advance you think about all the possible responses of the board to your letter, and you have your arguments ready.’ Eating and drinking is always a sensitive subject at the university. Anyone who touches the coffee or kroket of students or employees must fear for their life at the UvA. ‘I was ready to have a tough discussion,’ Nuria remembers, ‘Then, at the end of the meeting, the Director of Operations at the faculty took the floor. He said: “When I saw the subject of the letter, I thought to myself: Oh god, what am I supposed to do with this? But it is a very clear letter. I have consulted with the caterer and we are going to work on this.” That was not at all what I expected: usually we have to have a discussion before things move forwards.’

A few weeks later it was done: all the lunches and snacks offered by the faculty were vegetarian by default. Offering vegan-only lunches and snacks was not feasible in the short term, due to the limited supply options of the caterer. The student council was nevertheless satisfied. ‘Not long after I also received an e-mail: the university library wanted to do the same,’ says Nuria.

Her advice for all UvA students who want to change something at the university? ‘Abstract and ideological beliefs are needed, but the more concrete you can make things, the more concrete you can write them down, the higher your chances of getting something done.’ Moreover, it is also a nice change to do something tangible, Nuria thinks. ‘It gives you a lot of energy, which is needed to handle the more complicated and difficult cases.’