Hill Vegetarians Want to Know: Where Are the Lentils?

A caucus of congressional staffers says meatless choices in Capitol eateries need beefing up.

A refrigerator is seen in a closed cafeteria on Capitol Hill October 2, 2013 in Washington, DC. Talks between US President Barack Obama and top Republican leaders failed to end a government shutdown, with both sides accusing the other of refusing to move off hardened positions. 
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
March 25, 2014, 5:11 p.m.

A little-pub­li­cized caucus of Cap­it­ol Hill aides — the Con­gres­sion­al Ve­get­ari­an Staff As­so­ci­ation — is set to con­vene again Fri­day as part of its per­sist­ent cam­paign to get bet­ter ve­get­ari­an food op­tions put on the Cap­it­ol eat­ery menus.

Guest speak­ers at the event in the Cap­it­ol Vis­it­or Cen­ter will be the reign­ing Miss D.C., Bindhu Pamarthi, and Den­ise Hicks, founder of ve­gan cater­er Post­mod­ern Foods.

So, what does a beauty queen have to do with menus in the Cap­it­ol’s House and Sen­ate cafet­er­i­as?

“Both wo­men will talk about why they chose to build cruelty-free busi­nesses — Ms. Pamarthi has her own line of ve­gan cos­met­ics, and Ms. Hicks uses all-nat­ur­al ve­gan in­gredi­ents. She’ll be ca­ter­ing the event with sand­wiches and samples of her healthy juice,” said Adam Sar­vana, com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or for Rep. Raul Gri­jalva, D-Ar­iz.

Then, next Tues­day, the caucus and the Phys­i­cians Com­mit­tee for Re­spons­ible Medi­cine are host­ing a catered lunch and speak­ing event fea­tur­ing U.S. Olympic swim­mer Kate Zie­g­ler; Iron­man and ul­tramara­thon cham­pi­on Brendan Bra­zi­er; Olympi­an and tae kwon do world cham­pi­on Daba Modibo Keita; and sports me­dia per­son­al­ity Chuck Car­roll.

Ac­cord­ing to Sar­vana, these gath­er­ings are the latest for­ays grow­ing out of an up­ris­ing star­ted in early 2013 by a few con­gres­sion­al staffers dis­ap­poin­ted in the ve­get­ari­an of­fer­ings avail­able at Cap­it­ol cafet­er­i­as. Their group got of­fi­cial re­cog­ni­tion when fresh­man Rep. Tulsi Gab­bard of Hawaii, a prac­ti­cing Hindu, agreed to spon­sor it as a caucus, a des­ig­na­tion that al­lows use of Cap­it­ol fa­cil­it­ies for meet­ings and events.

Today, the group’s email list in­cludes more than 100 names, Sar­vana said.

“I’ve been a ve­get­ari­an for my en­tire life,” Gab­bard said in a state­ment from her of­fice Tues­day. “Healthy eat­ing and prac­tice of yoga play a crit­ic­al role in my over­all well-be­ing, es­pe­cially with the hec­tic sched­ule I have.”

She ad­ded that the Con­gres­sion­al Ve­get­ari­an Staff As­so­ci­ation “is a great or­gan­iz­a­tion that has had a great amount of in­terest since its in­cep­tion, and has raised aware­ness on Cap­it­ol Hill about the health and en­vir­on­ment­al be­ne­fits of ve­get­ari­an­ism.

“It can also be a fun way for people to sample de­li­cious, healthy food and see that there are oth­er di­et­ary op­tions avail­able that taste good and are good for you!” Gab­bard said.

But caucus mem­bers, past and present, say battles con­tin­ue to be waged with re­gard to the Cap­it­ol’s eat­er­ies.

“I helped start it,” Mi­chael Shank, a former com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or for Rep. Mike Honda, a Cali­for­nia Demo­crat, said of the group’s be­gin­nings.

Shank re­calls that he and oth­er staffers who were up­set at a lack of what they saw as suf­fi­cient of­fer­ings for ve­get­ari­ans wrote a let­ter to Res­taur­ant As­so­ci­ates, the New York City”“based com­pany that runs the Cap­it­ol cafet­er­i­as, ask­ing for a meet­ing to talk about im­prov­ing the food op­tions.

“We found their re­sponse was in­suf­fi­cient. They did re­spond but re­spon­ded by claim­ing there were suf­fi­cient op­tions,” Shank said. “So now it’s a full-fledged move­ment.”

The is­sue was more press­ing with re­gard to the cafet­er­i­as on the House side of the Cap­it­ol com­plex, Sar­vana and Shank both said.

Ini­tially, they said, a ba­sic com­plaint was that the primary pro­tein avail­able on the House side was tofu, and even then it was too of­ten fried. The push was on for oth­er op­tions such as more chick­peas, black beans, brown beans, and len­tils.

A spokes­man for Res­taur­ant As­so­ci­ates did not re­turn mes­sages Tues­day. “We’re cer­tainly aware of the ques­tions and con­cerns, and the dis­cus­sions,” said Dan Weiser, a spokes­man for the chief ad­min­is­trat­ive of­ficer of the House, which con­tracts with the New York com­pany to sup­ply and run the food ser­vices on the House side. However, Weis would not elab­or­ate, say­ing that those dis­cus­sions are between “the in­ter­ested parties and Res­taur­ant As­so­ci­ates.”

Both Shank and Sar­vana said there has been some im­prove­ment since last year. But they say the ve­get­ari­an staff as­so­ci­ation needs to con­tin­ue press­ing its case and hold­ing group events to raise the pro­file of the is­sue so that im­prove­ments con­tin­ue.

So, as part of that, the group has sponsored activ­it­ies with celebrit­ies such as act­ress Marilu Hen­ner, med­ic­al doc­tors, and ve­gan cook­book au­thors.

“They’ve done a lot more to spruce up the Long­worth Cafet­er­ia,” Sar­vana said.

“But what we really want is a ded­ic­ated win­dow for ve­get­ari­ans — at least once a week — where all the food is ab­so­lutely ve­get­ari­an,” he said. “But they’ve balked at that. They say their mar­ket re­search shows that won’t sell.”

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