When Matthew Theisz, a 20-year vegetarian, picked up a plate of collard greens labeled “vegetarian” from the Johnson & Hardwick cafeteria Feb. 26, he didn’t expect to find meat in it.
“Right away, I knew there was something [wrong] with the collard greens,” the senior natural sciences major said. “They tasted like crap.”
Upon further inspection of the dish, Theisz said he found “finely shredded meat,” specifically turkey, among the vegetables.
Management at the Main Campus cafeteria, operated by Sodexo, said the collard greens were part of a special “Soul Food Menu” in a letter addressed to Theisz, given to him the day of the incident.
The letter stated: “Usually collard greens are a vegetarian dish. However, today we added turkey meat to the collard greens. Unfortunately, we used the wrong item identifier, and the collard greens were labeled ‘vegetarian.’”
Theisz, whose vegetarianism stems from his personal religious beliefs, said he has taken vows not to eat meat.
“I feel that vegetarian students have the right to be informed that they have broken their sacred vows, whether religious or ethical, due to the sloppy procedures followed by the university Dining Services,” he said.
In a letter from Sodexo Education Market Senior Vice President Bill Lacey to Theisz dated March 17, he apologized for the incident and said the food service would be “instituting several new steps in response to this incident.” Those new steps include a review of the cafeteria’s labeling procedures and a new system where managers check labels twice to ensure accuracy.
“We will post information at the vegetarian station to acknowledge the error and explain our reinforced safety and labeling commitment to students,” Lacey wrote in the letter.
A sign notifying students of the incident was visible March 17 to 24, said Temple University Dining Services’ Marketing Director Jeffrey Browne.
Browne also said he and two other Sodexo staff members, registered dietitian Julie Rhule and general manager David Tolbert, were available to answer patrons’ questions about the incident during the cafeteria’s peak periods, approximately 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Theisz said he opted for a meal plan at Temple after learning about Sodexo’s reputation for accommodating vegetarian and vegan students.
In 2007, Sodexo, then Sodexho, Inc., was awarded a “Proggy” for being the “Most Vegetarian-Friendly Food Service Operator” from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The “Proggy” is PETA’s progress award, given to “companies, people and products for innovative and animal-friendly achievements,” according to the Web site for the 2008 awards.
PETA, in its description of the food service company for the 2007 Proggy awards, said it “is definitely tuned in to the growing demand for animal-friendly dining options, especially among college students.”
This may not be the case for students’ options on Main Campus.
Jacqueline Palmer, a junior secondary English education major, has been vegan for a year and a half. Six months before she became a vegan, she excluded meat from her diet. Palmer said she eats on campus every day, often at the J&H cafeteria.
“I like when they have vegan options, but I’m still worried every single time that it may contain meat,” she said, “so I end up eating a lot of broccoli.”
Palmer said there are often inconsistencies in the vegan options offered at the cafeteria, saying she has seen “vegan” chili offered one week but “vegetarian” chili offered the next.
“I just have to be careful,” she said.
Melissa Bross, a senior environmental science major, has been a vegan for nine months. She doesn’t have a meal plan or eat at Temple’s Dining Services locations.
“I usually just bring food from home,” she said.
Theisz now joins Temple vegetarians, like Bross, who pack lunches and find alternatives to Temple’s on-campus dining locations.
“I immediately demanded to be released from my food contract,” Theisz said. “They refunded [my] money for the rest of the semester. I really feel [Sodexo] should have refunded all of my money, at least for this semester, as a small gesture of their sincerity and in reaction to my absolute dissatisfaction. They have refused to. So, I have never eaten there again and probably never will.”
“I never would have ate there if I thought it was that sloppy,” Theisz said.
After the incident with the collard greens was brought to the attention of Sodexo employees, Theisz was informed there had been turkey broth in what Theisz thought had been a vegetable dish. The dish contained cabbage and potatoes, and although it wasn’t marked “vegetarian,” he assumed it was.
Theisz said he remembered thinking, “I just ate meat twice today, basically against my own will.”
Dr. Teresa A. Powell, vice president for student affairs, said the university would be working with Sodexo’s district manager “to prevent this from happening again,” in a letter of apology to Theisz dated March 13.
But Theisz said he remains dissatisfied with the ways that both Temple and Sodexo have handled the situation.
“The university needs to uphold their principles of diversity and respect everyone’s religious and ethical beliefs,” he said. “And stand up for the student body when those principles are grossly violated.”
Chelsea Calhoun can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.