|A vegan buffet at Seoul National University / Courtesy of Lee Ah-in|
Green Party calls lack of vegan catering in schools, military 'unconstitutional'
By Lee Suh-yoon
Last month, Kim Xe-ro, 24, visited a local "makguksu" (buckwheat noodle) joint. He explained to the restaurant owners he was a vegan and asked if the broth was mackerel- or meat-based. They assured him they used only vegetables and fruit to flavor it. A few minutes later, his order came ― with a boiled egg on top of the noodles.
"It wasn't the first time. I once had a cook at a gimbab shop tell me 'this is ham, not meat,'" Kim said in an interview last week. "Veganism is still a foreign concept to most Koreans."
Kim has been a vegan for a year now. Fortunately, the university he attends in Seoul has a vegan option on campus. It charges twice the price of a normal meal in a student cafeteria ― being a buffet ― but it gives him access to meals two to three times a week. On days when he gets tired of the largely same buffet menu, he subsists on vegetable gimbab, bread or just potato snacks from a convenience store.
Having one vegan option on campus, however, still makes Kim one of the luckier ones. Staying vegan is almost impossible for those who must have their meals at dining halls in public facilities such as schools, prisons or the military. All able-bodied Korean men between the ages of 18 and 35 must serve 18 to 22 months in the military.
To address this problem, the Green Party is gathering plaintiffs to file a petition with the Constitutional Court on the lack of vegetarian or vegan canteens at public bodies.
Ha Seung-soo, a Green Party member leading the legislative push, cites basic constitutional rights ― including freedom of conscience and the right to self-determination, health and equality ― to make a case for a vegan option at public canteens.
"Vegans have the right to a balanced diet as much as non-vegans," Ha said in a phone interview. "It's a right protected by the principle of equal treatment in our Constitution."
The vegan population in the country is still small but growing. According to industry estimates, the number of vegans or people who cut meat and dairy products from their diet in the country is around 1.5 million ― 10 times the figure from 2008.
Similar efforts are being made in Europe and North America to secure vegan options at public canteens. Last year, California passed a bill requiring hospitals and prisons ― public institutions with a "captive audience" ― to provide at least one vegan option at every meal. Portugal has also made vegan options mandatory at cafeterias in universities, hospitals, prisons and any other institutes that receive public funding.
Cho Gil-ye, the Vegan Climate Action Network head who led a successful but short-lived vegetarian catering project at an elementary school in Gwangju in 2012, says the problem is usually budget-related.
In the project, 10 percent of the students signed up for vegetarian meals five days a week, with the other students being given the same twice a week. The satisfaction rate was high among participating students and their parents but the administration could not find the budget to continue hiring a vegan chef.
"Going vegan or vegetarian is one of the only effective ways left to address the climate change crisis," Cho said, citing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's August report that claimed plant-based diets can meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the global food production system.
"And people, especially young people, should not be blocked from the chance to take part in this action by their right to live in a clean environment and ensure the same right to future generations."