Vegetarianism attracts college-aged people

On a sweltering summer day 38 years ago, an order for a double meat-eater’s deep dish pizza came up in the kitchen window. Standing next to the blistering heat rising from the oven, Nancy O’Connor — then fresh out of college — had a moment of clarity.

“I opened the oven door and went, ‘wow, I wonder what it would be like to walk away from this food,’” she said.

Thousands of students are finding themselves in O’Connor’s shoes, making the movement away from meat. A 2008 study by Vegetarian Times reported that of the 7.3 million vegetarian Americans, 42 percent are age 18 to 34.

At O’Connor’s childhood home, meat was the heart of the plate and vegetables were an afterthought. Even though when she left for college a vegetarian lifestyle was almost a sort of counterculture, she was empowered to explore outside the cuisine she grew up with.

It opened her eyes, and she never looked back.

Now O’Connor teaches classes geared toward a vegetarian diet at the Community Mercantile (the Merc). However, participants aren’t all tried-and-true vegetarians. More often than not, they’re simply looking for ways to improve, balance and broaden their palates.

O’Connor believes that for beginners, eating vegetarian at least once a week can have health and environmental benefits. Her philosophy is that meat can play a supporting role on a plate.

“If you’re eating meat, it can be more of an embellishment rather than a star,” she explained.

For around $5, her students walk away with a new recipe and a food freebie from a one-hour class like “A Crash Course in Tofu,” or “A Veggie Picnic.”

And the refrigerators and freezers at the Merc are stocked with everything from veggie burgers and tofu hot dogs to vegetarian Indian entrées and pizzas.

The Lawrence community is incredibly vegan- and vegetarian-friendly, with local produce suppliers like the Merc, Natural Grocers and the Farmer’s Market.

According to, there are 20 Lawrence restaurants that offer alternative, vegetarian-friendly menu options. In the 2013 Best of Lawrence awards, Zen Zero took the gold for best vegetarian eatery.

Also included on the list are Ingredient and Mad Greek, two of Lauren Fleming’s favorite spots to chow down on a vegetarian meal.

Fleming, a sophomore from Lawrence, said she was challenged into becoming a vegetarian when her sister decided to follow the lifestyle. It was gradual — first she gave up red meat and then made a full transition after high school.

It was a little awkward at family lunches at her grandparent’s cattle farm. However, Fleming said her vegetarian diet has influenced her family to broaden what they put on their plates, like trying stir-fry and substituting fish for steak.

“It was an adjustment, but I think it’s prompted them to become more healthy,” she said.Fleming’s love of animals was a deciding factor in her choice. Images of slaughterhouses in a documentary she recently watched came to mind.“I understand that back in the day, that that’s how people survived, eating meat,” she said. “Now it’s commercial farming where animals aren’t treated that well.”

There are numerous reasons to choose a vegetarian lifestyle, but O’Connor and Fleming agreed that it shouldn’t matter why — that diet is a very personal decision.

O’Connor’s sons have continued to embrace a vegetarian lifestyle after leaving the house.

“It’s not because they’re forced to,” she said. “I believe it can be an inspirational way of eating.”

It just so happens that meat doesn’t inspire her.

“I look at it as, for me, my answer is just ‘no thank you.’”

Emma LeGault is a junior from Emporia majoring in journalism. Read more from .

  • Updated Jul. 1, 2013 at 9:15 am
  • Edited by Allison Kohn