Anuj Shah, an alumnus from Baker College (’92) and immigration lawyer, spoke to the Rice Vegan Society last Thursday about his experience switching to veganism as an undergraduate, including a fight with Rice administration over meal plans and opposition he faced from the student body.
The Rice Vegan Society was founded just this year, and this was its fourth major event. According to President Christoph Wagner, Shah is part of the reason that the society was started in the first place.
“I met him at a Vegan New Year’s Eve party, and he was the one who encouraged me to start a new vegan club at Rice,” Wagner, a first-year graduate student studying cello performance, said. “So, in fact, it’s thanks to him that we exist and have all the support from him and from other vegan people in the community.”
Shah described his conflict with the administration over paying for the meal plan at Baker given that the meal plan did not cater to vegans.
“I actually had to go all the way up to all these different committees and battle this,” Shah said. “And they made me pay it.”
Eventually, Shah said he ended up moving off campus since he had to pay the $800 meal plan, despite cooking all of his own meals.
Shah said he wrote several opinion pieces on veganism for the Thresher that were countered by a fellow student and “caused a huge firestorm.”
“The whole campus was really into it,” Shah said. “People would see me on campus and say, ‘Hey, I saw your article, and I saw his opposition, and thank you for having this conversation.’”
According to Shah, despite spending several months each year as a vegetarian in India, he initially had no interest in being vegan.
Shah said that perspective changed at 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 27, 1989, when he read a chapter on animal products from Harvey and Marilyn Diamond’s book “Living Health” that convinced him to go vegan for health reasons.
A couple of months later, a friend in Shah’s dormitory introduced him to “Diet for a New America,” a book written by John Robbins, son of Baskin-Robbins co-founder Irv Robbins. Shah said he was moved by the book’s section on the suffering of animals, which convinced him there is a difference between being truly vegan and eating a plant-based diet.
“I actually cried through that whole section of the book, and I’m not the kind of person who usually cries,” Shah said. “I was blown away. I never thought that I would even care about that.”
During his time at Rice, Shah founded the Rice Organization for Animal Rights. According to Shah, the club had around 12 to 15 members. Shah said that ROAR stayed on the books for a few years but then went defunct because nobody kept it up after he left.
In terms of finding vegan options, Shah said that he has not had trouble maintaining his diet even while travelling through much of Latin America and parts of Asia and Europe. The biggest difficulty he had, Shah said, was when he resorted to eating chocolate for lunch in Hungary.
Shah said that he expected veganism to have taken hold more on Rice’s campus after nearly 30 years. He said being vegan in 2018 is easier than when he made the switch.
“It’s interesting, in 2018 there’s still a group of, what, a dozen people here?” Shah said. “You’d think there should have been 500 people here, you know?”
Shah suggested that one reason for veganism’s seemingly small presence on campus is that people on campus are not always open to discussing topics like they are on a more liberal campus like the University of California, Berkeley.
“I think people are scared,” Shah said. “I think people do what’s comfortable and what they know.”
Sarah Elizabeth Bradford is part of a Student Association working group that aims to expand dining options in the serveries for those with dietary restrictions. Bradford said that she is grateful to Housing and Dining for working to incorporate more options into the servery menus.
“I think that we have far more vegan options in the serveries than Dr. Shah did in the ’90s,” Bradford, a Brown College sophomore, said. “All the chefs we have talked to so far have been eager to listen to us and create changes in the way they plan meals.”
According to Wagner, the Vegan Society is planning on having more speakers, panel discussions, movie screenings and having an on-campus veggie party with vegan food.
“We look forward to future events and to establish the Rice Vegan Society within the Rice community,” Wagner said.