In Capitol Hill cafeterias, even lunch is partisan

Tired of the grilled cheese served in Capitol Hill cafeterias, a few congressional vegetarians formed a caucus and asked for better lunch options. They didn't expect that their simple request would turn into a special-interest fight.

"I think this small story about a group of Capitol Hill vegetarians trying to get better options in the place that they go to work every day is evidence of everything that is wrong with Washington," says reporter Marin Cogan.

A comment from a congressional aide in a blog post about the food fight turned into her story for the New Republic called "Hey Vegetarians, Congress Doesn't Like You."

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Those few lines in the blog post that started all of this -- what were they and who wrote them?

Marin Cogan: It was just a short post in one of the Capitol Hill newspapers about these congressional vegetarians who had attempted to get some better vegetarian options in the Capitol Hill cafeterias. They had seen it turn into a big, partisan, special-interest fight.

A few months ago, a few of these vegetarian hill staffers were getting together and talking about how bad their vegetarian options were on Capitol Hill. They did what like-minded people do in Washington: They decided to form a caucus.

The caucus was meant to be educational and bipartisan, but one of the first things they wanted to do was write the caterers of some of the Capitol Hill cafeterias and ask for a meeting introducing better vegetarian options onto the menus.

They never heard back, but a few weeks later, a sign went up in one of the cafeteria buildings advertising a Meatless Monday. [Ed. note: Meatless Monday is a non-profit initiative from The Monday Campaigns and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that seeks "to reduce meat consumption by 15% for our personal health and the health of the planet."] They were going to have one kiosk in one of the cafeterias offering meatless options once a month. It turned into a huge, partisan, special-interest fight that they never even asked for.

LRK: What form did this fight take? Did this sign go up as a result of the letter they wrote?

MC: They never heard back so they are not entirely sure. I did a little bit of digging around on this, and it turns out that it was just one catering staffer who just put up a sign. He was new to Capitol Hill and maybe didn't understand the political implications.

This one sign went up, a farm industry lobbyist saw the sign and called another farm industry lobbyist. They got together and wrote a letter on behalf of the Farm Animal Welfare Coalition, which is a coalition of different farm industry groups decrying Meatless Monday as an acknowledged tool of the environmental and the animal rights communities.

LRK: Did the environmental and animal rights communities respond to that?

MC: They weren't even aware previously that this was happening, so they inadvertently found themselves in the middle of this fight. The caterers apologized immediately once it became controversial. The vegetarians never heard anything back from them.

Now the vegetarians are saying, "We don't care about Meatless Monday. We just want some better options on Capitol Hill." They unwittingly found themselves in the middle of this big argument that they didn't ask for and that hasn't solved any of their problems.

LRK: I understand that as different parties come into power, what happens in the cafeterias changes.

MC: It's more of an ideological battleground than you might think. I remember in 2011, not long after John Boehner took over the House, we all came into the cafeteria and found that the compostable cutlery, takeaway cases and cups that Nancy Pelosi had introduced in her time as speaker had been replaced with plastic and Styrofoam. Even the coffee was different. Lunch in Washington looks a lot like everything else: It's really partisan.

LRK: If Democrats hold the Senate, is the Senate cafeteria any friendlier, for instance, to vegetarians?

MC: It really varies. There are so many different cafeterias on Capitol Hill. Most people just go to whichever one is closest. The Senate one is smaller, but the House office building cafeterias tend to be a little better than the ones in the Capitol. It just depends where you go. [Ed. note: The New York Times has more on Capitol Hill's lunch spots, including a list of popular options.]

LRK: What are the vegetarian choices that they have?

MC: Again, it depends where you go.

I eat most days out of the House Capitol cafeteria in the basement, and it's just really a salad bar or a grilled cheese. No, you don't want to eat grilled cheese every day -- or maybe you do, but it's not the best idea -- so really a salad bar is your only option.

It's a little different in other office buildings, but I don’t think any vegetarian would claim that they have wonderful options all over Capitol Hill.

LRK: You cover Capitol Hill and you cover political issues. What's your long view of this?

MC: I think this small story about a group of Capitol Hill vegetarians trying to get better options in the place that they go to work every day is evidence of everything that is wrong with Washington. It became a big, theatrical, partisan fight and it didn't need to be. They just wanted better lunch.

If you're looking for evidence of why it's so difficult to do the legislative sausage making on Capitol Hill, just look at how difficult it is for these vegetarian hill staffers to get vegetarian sausages introduced in their cafeterias.

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