Dave Gorman, Director of the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability, has now been vegan for 6 months. On World Vegan Day, we learn why he made the change and how he’s found the switch.
When did you change your diet?
I had been vegetarian for a while, but it was the spring of this year that I finally decided to go vegan. It was partly because, as silly as it sounds, we have hens in the back garden and one of them was hopping on top of me as they do, and I thought that it just no longer made sense to be involved in supporting animal agriculture. It was almost as simple as that.
What were your motivations for going vegan? Was there something in particular that inspired you to make the change?
That was the moment that was really pivotal for me, but there were obviously things going on unconsciously that influenced me prior to that. There are now several main motivations for me. One was the increasing concern I have about the climate emergency, and the fact that the science continues to report worse and worse outcomes, as does the physical evidence in front of us, we’re just not taking enough action. What’s been in the back of my mind is what more I can do personally to tackle the climate crisis.
I knew one way to reduce my impact further was to go vegan and cut out animal products from my diet, because the evidence proves it is more sustainable. I saw one study by Oxford University that talks about a 50 to 75% reductions in land use, water use and carbon emissions by going to a plant-based diet.
Also, the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability is quite a young department and there a lot of people that are vegan already, so it’s been partially influenced by them as I have a source of advice and guidance and that makes it easier, so it’s probably a few things bubbling away under the surface.
Take your time. Don’t beat yourself up if you find it difficult at first. Do at least think about the consequences of your food choices.
What are the benefits of a vegan diet?
I think there are 4 main benefits, most of them personal but also one job related. The first one for me is not needing to have animals killed for me to live, so I can reduce animal suffering by reducing the demand for animal products. I’m no longer comfortable with supporting the animal agriculture industry as it stands.
The second one is the environmental benefits. To me the evidence is extremely clear that this is a much lower impact lifestyle choice.
The third and most unexpected one are the health benefits of veganism. I guess I hadn’t really looked into that aspect particularly well, and even thought I might be unhealthier if anything, but I began to read voraciously around food and quickly realised that actually some of the things I had been brought up to believe about nutrition actually aren’t true, and I don’t need to get my protein from milk or eggs and I can easily get it from a plant based diet. So the key ones are the climate, the animal suffering and the health benefits.
The fourth one I didn’t expect is related to my job, as my vegan diet has become a talking point. It’s not as if you go around wearing a big badge saying “I am a vegan” but people do notice, because you’ll ask things like “do you have an dairy-free alternative for the coffee?” and what I’ve discovered is that, perhaps because of wider social awareness about sustainability recently, but people have started to approach me to ask questions.
I also think it surprises people, particularly for me as an older man in a more senior role at the University, as often the perception is that vegans are all young women, but it’s been quite interesting how much I’ve been approached by people who want to talk about it. Not because they are necessarily going to go vegan themselves, but they often tell me that they are reducing the amount of animal products they are consuming and they are often surprised when I say how easy I found it. When you’re in a change-making job like we are, it’s good to have people talking about food choices.
What have you struggled with and what have you found easier than you expected?
Almost all of it has been easier than I expected, I was briefly vegan about 25 years ago and that was really, really hard. But in the days of the internet, and so much choice in recipes and cookbooks and advice guides online, it’s easy.
The hardest things have been finding food whilst travelling, I think options on UK trains have a lot of improving to do. Especially when you have to travel frequently like I do, it’s been quite tough, but you just need to think about it and prepare. Just occasionally, when we order pizza with the family, it’s been hard to not have an option but not too much has been too hard, to be honest.
The unexpected bonus is that I’m eating far more fruit and vegetables and all kinds of healthier foods and have almost undergone a ‘rediscovery of palate’. I was discussing this with the Head of Catering at the University, and due to the reduced amounts of processed foods I’m eating now, I’m rediscovering how delicious things like berries and bananas are. So mostly pretty easy, but travel remains a challenge.
What would you recommend to others interested in a vegan diet, or reducing their animal product intake?
There’s loads of really great advice out there. Veganuary supports you to go vegan for the month of January, but you can use their resources all year round. The Vegan Society runs a 30 day challenge which takes you day-by-day through the changes.
It isn’t about purity, you don’t suddenly become a bad person if you accidentally eat something with cheese in it, I’ve been fine so far, but if I did make a slip I‘m not going to beat myself up about it, you can’t be too hard on yourself. Food is deeply personal, so I’m not comfortable with telling other people how to eat or banning things in the University. If you want to learn more, ask those who are already vegan around you, or simply search online. There are so many opportunities to avoid or reduce animal products now, and therefore also reduce animal suffering and the carbon footprint of your food, without really having impact on the quality of the food or the range of choices.
The other things I’ve been staggered by is the sheer range of inventive recipes and cookbooks. You want to eat Chinese? No problem, Mexican? No problem. You want to substitute cheese? Just look in the ‘free from’ section in a supermarket, ask someone or search online for advice.
Also, take your time. It doesn’t always have to be a binary choice and don’t beat yourself up if you find it difficult at first. Do at least think about the consequences of your food choices.
Students at the University are calling for the university to do more on sustainable food. What do you think the next steps are in making our catering more sustainable?
We have come from a place where we have been working on our Good Food Policy for quite a while now. The University has to try and reconcile a lot of differing opinions about food which is why I am bit uncomfortable with outright bans, as unless there was very strong support, I’m not personally convinced. If you say to someone “you can’t have it” there are more likely to want it, it’s better to instead present them with alternatives.
The direction of travel has been heading towards increasing the amount of vegetarian and vegan options available in our cafés and trying to move that from 40% towards 50% of all the offering, and the quicker we get to that, the better.
We want to improve the sourcing of food, attempting to have lots of local products sold and also trying to raise the bar in terms of the standards of food we are getting. We want to keep improving the quality and the assurance of the food we serve and where it’s coming from.
The third thing is food waste, we are still wasting too much food. We want to roll out more food waste bins across the University and we want to encourage students particularly in catered accommodation not take food they don’t need, so having a focus on those educational campaigns. Linked to that, more work with community groups to help teach our students how to cook. Many students come to University not knowing how to cook, so we need to help them gain practical skills like cooking as part of the University experience. There are many recipes that are good for you, good for the planet and cheap.
In regards to packaging, our Accommodation, Catering and Events team do a great job, but one thing I do want to improve is the packaging when you have delivered catering. The food is extremely high quality, but it does come with a lot of packaging. Finally, something that’s emerging is food reuse, where you reuse food at the end of the day or sell it to students cheaper, we are constantly need to plan better how much food we need so at the end of the day we aren’t left with a whole bunch of stuff that’s going to waste. It does go to food recycling, which is good, but it would be better if it went to humans. Still there are lots to do.
One thing we’ve done recently is to put University cafes on Too Good To Go, an app that allows you to buy food at the end of its sell by date for a bargain price to save it from waste. Find out more here.
Finally, what’s your favourite vegan dish or product?
Download the ‘Too Good to Go‘ app