The University of North Texas is getting national recognition for its new vegan dining options and is currently in the running for Most Vegan-Friendly Campus in America.
The contest is being held by PETA2, the youth division of the animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
UNT was an unlikely place for a vegan cafeteria to pop up at, said Ryan Huling, manager of college campaigns for PETA2.
"They're really a newcomer to our list and the national vegan dining stage," Huling said.
UNT's vegan dining hall, Mean Greens located by Maple Hall, opened this fall and offers grilled vegetables, a sushi bar, panini bar and a variety of desserts made without milk or eggs, from pineapple upside down cake to peach cobbler to soy ice cream.
Because of the university's initiative, PETA2 awarded UNT with a Compassionate Campus Award at the beginning of the semester. The award is given out a few times a year to schools that have gone above and beyond, he said.
"Part of the reason UNT really stood out to us is their sheer enthusiasm," Huling said. "It showed a lot of guts."
He said the university is going all in and "drawing students in to the cruelty-free option." HOW TO VOTE
Visit http://features.peta2.com/Vegan-Colleges-2011 . Voting for Round 2 ends at 4 p.m. today.
But the cafeteria's many options are what really made it stand out in the contest, he said, including its garden pesto veggie wraps, tofu loaves, Aztecan quinoa salad and peach cobbler.
The contest started with 32 universities that were broken up into two categories - large universities, with more than 10,000 undergraduates; and small, with fewer than 10,000 undergraduates.
In Round 2, the number was cut in half, and now eight schools in each category are in the running.
The voting is "NCAA bracket style," Huling said.
UNT has made it to Round 2 of the competition. Voting for each round ends on Mondays and results are announced on Tuesdays. On Nov. 21, the winners from each of the categories will be announced.
Voting for Round 2 of the contest ends today at 4 p.m.
"It's pretty exciting that we're actually in the second round because we are against some big competition there," said Ken Botts, director of special projects for dining services at UNT.
Botts said the vegan option was a student idea that appealed to the university.
"That's a big risk to take," he said. "We did our homework. We listened to the students."
He was expecting one of two responses - either the students would love it or hate it. He wasn't expecting the national and international attention, though, and said the response has been overwhelming.
UNT is starting to get calls from student groups at other universities interested in how they can get a vegan cafeteria at their schools.
"It doesn't stop," Botts said. "It's exciting that UNT was able to do something that not only impacted the lives of students, because they asked for it, but the community at large."
He said not only are students, faculty and staff eating at the cafeteria, community members have also stopped by to check it out.
"I eat here more than any other cafeteria," said Jaime Blanton, who works in UNT's Office of Orientation and Transition Programs, as she was leaving the cafeteria Thursday. "I think it may be the only residence hall faculty are familiar with."
She bought a meal plan last year but never used it. Luckily, it rolled over, she said.
She'd never eaten vegetarian or vegan before trying Mean Greens, which she was skeptical of trying.
Now she loves it. And she's not the only one.
"I'm huge into meat," said Cassandra Diaz, graduate assistant for parent programs at UNT. Thursday was her first time to try the vegan dining hall. "I didn't really miss it."
Huling said there has been a higher demand for quality vegan options at universities.
"The bar has been raised significantly in recent years," he said.
Other universities have dipped their toes into the vegan dining pool with programs such as Meatless Mondays, "but to have a major dining hall on campus that is fully vegan all the time is a much bolder leap," he said.
RACHEL MEHLHAFF can be reached at 940-566-6889. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .