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Vegetarians Find Options Wanting at Capitol Complex

For busy staffers on Capitol Hill, whose hectic days are often scheduled down to the minute, grabbing lunch often means a trip to the cafeterias scattered around the Capitol complex.

Although there are multiple dining spots on the campus’s House and Senate sides, offering everything from Indian cuisine to slow-cooked barbecue, some vegetarian and vegan House staffers say there’s a noticeable lack of healthy proteins and lettuce varieties available to fit their dietary needs.

And they’re doing something about it.

Calling themselves the Vegetarian Caucus, these vegetarian and vegan House staffers penned a letter late last month urging Restaurant Associates, the New York-based food service company that runs most of the eateries in the Capitol complex, to add standing proteins and more nutritious greens to the salad bars on the House side, including black beans, spinach, kale and tofu.

“While the salad bar occasionally has black beans, tofu and chickpeas, all good sources of protein, those options are not always reliable or sufficient,” reads the letter, signed by nine House staffers identifying with the Vegetarian Caucus. “We would like to request that tofu, falafel or other substantive, non-animal protein is offered every day as a salad bar option.”

Michael Shank, communications director for California Democratic Rep. Michael M. Honda and a member of the Vegetarian Caucus, said the letter the group sent to RA was a product of informal conversations between vegetarian and vegan staffers on the House side of the Capitol. He said they all realized that they lamented the lack of vegetarian and vegan options available for lunch at the House eateries when they got together.

“We got into a conversation, and we all started saying, ‘Oh yeah, eating on the Hill has limited options for vegetarians and vegans. We should do something about it,’” said Shank, who has been a vegetarian for 20 years and recently began living a vegan or meat- and dairy-free lifestyle.

Shank said the group received a positive response from RA regarding the concerns. But three weeks after sending the Feb. 22 email, the group has seen no changes in salad bar offerings.

“The essence of what they said is, ‘Hey, we hear you, and we’re committed to attending to your concerns,’” Shank said. “I think it was a positive response, and I think they very clearly heard us and understood the legitimacy of our concern.  . . .  [But the email was] pretty recent, so they’re probably buying in bulk, and I don’t know how quickly you can change the offerings. So the change remains to be seen.”

RA representatives did not reply to CQ Roll Call’s request for comment.

Shank and other members hope that by going to the press, the Vegetarian Caucus will inspire other vegetarians and vegans on Capitol Hill to join their cause and spread the word to RA leadership.

“There are about a dozen of us right now, and we’re pretty new. This is the first article that talks about us,” Shank said of the Vegetarian Caucus. “We hope that with [this article] there will become increased awareness.”

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