You walk into the circular restaurant space, and that’s when it hits you: the walls are painted fluorescent pink and adorned with sparkles, the windows full of various stenciled planets glowing under dim-lit lights. Hippies, college kids and families fill booths and converse while busy employees rush around filling up water glasses and taking orders. It’s 2 in the morning. This is the Saturn Café.
When customers open the menu, they are hardly surprised to find all of the typical American diner must-haves ready to order. They are hardly surprised, that is, until their eyes follow the bolded asterisk to the bottom of the page and discover that everything served in this restaurant is meat-free. But “the Saturn” wasn’t always like this.
Don Lane, original co-founder of Saturn Café and current Santa Cruz City Council member, explained his initial intentions for starting a restaurant.
“We started it not with vegetarianism at the center of our thinking,” he said. “It was really the desserts that were our starting point. We had this idea that if we were going to have really good desserts but we were trying to be health-conscious, then it would make sense to have relatively light vegetarian meals as a kind of good balance to that, really to reduce people’s guilt.”
In 1979, when Lane and a couple friends began the business, “vegan” was hardly in people’s vocabularies. There were only a handful of businesses that catered to the alternative style of eating.
“There were a lot fewer places that were conscious of it back then,” Lane said. “So we were pretty early in the game.”
Ernesto Quintero, current co-owner of the Saturn, said that now it’s a different story.
“Certainly vegan and vegetarian food has moved more into the mainstream over the past five years,” he said. “You’re seeing it pop up in all sorts of places that you wouldn’t have seen it popping up before.”
Quintero has co-owned the Saturn Café for five years now, and said that one of the reasons alternative eating has become more mainstream is because there are more extensive food options available to vegetarians and vegans now than ever before.
However, Quintero also said that the message behind the food has remained constant these past 30 years.
“The original Saturn owners had a commitment to community, they had a commitment to social environmental justice, and that’s something that has stayed true throughout all of the owners,” Quintero said. “The one piece that I think has stayed the most consistent is the concept of being a socially responsible business.”
In fact, two of the main reasons people pledge to eat less meat, no meat, or opt out of animal products altogether are environmental implications and animal cruelty. To Quintero, being a socially responsible business means addressing both.
According to Erik Marcus, founder and monitor of Vegan.com and author of several books including “Meat Market: Animals Ethics & Money” and “Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating,” many people are simply unaware of these implications, and therefore fail to address them.
Now a vegan for 20-plus years, Marcus said he only began thinking about changing his diet in the beginning of his college years when he was accidentally introduced to veganism.
“I was a pretty big meat-eater growing up — you know, almost every meal had meat in it,” he said. “Then one day, halfway through my freshman year, I walked into this room and they had on a videotape showing slaughterhouse footage. I was just appalled.”
Marcus said that he had never even met a vegetarian in his life up until that point. He then started reading books on the subject and looking more into a vegetarian lifestyle.
“I didn’t really know it was an option,” he said. “It was really a very different world then.”
After becoming fully vegetarian halfway through his sophomore year in college, Marcus transferred to UC Santa Cruz from his previous college in New Hampshire. He researched more about the egg and dairy industry, and began realizing that animal cruelty could be found there as well.
“It became clear to me that the abuses in the egg and dairy industry were every bit as extreme as the abuses in the meat industry,” Marcus said. “[It’s a] given that the only difference … is that meat comes from animals that have been killed, and milk and eggs come from animals that will be killed, guaranteed.”
Marcus explained that if the egg and dairy industries were more animal-friendly, some might consider switching back to vegetarianism despite the effort it would take to locate those industries. But at the efficiency rate that factory farms operate currently, it would be close to impossible for cage-free eggs and organic milk to be cost competitive.
Factory farms use technology like tilted-wire cages and conveyor belts — which reduce the labor costs that would be going toward collecting eggs and cleaning up feces — to be efficient and use the least amount of labor possible, thus cutting costs.
“There is no other system that can compare in efficiency,” Marcus said. “There is also no other operation that could compare in cruelty.”
Another issue goes back to the impact that the meat, egg and dairy industries have on the planet.
Rebecca Thistlethwaite works with the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) on campus, and is a social science researcher for innovative and sustainable business models. She explained that the United States is trying to keep up with demand for meat and dairy, and that’s why it is hard for sustainable farmers to compete with factory farms.
“If Americans ate the amount of meat that the rest of the world did, maybe once a week for a special occasion, then I think the whole planet could eat grass-fed, humanely raised animals,” she said. “But if we’re going to eat meat two or three times a day, then we are going to need about four planets to do that.”
In addition to her full-time job and raising a 4-year-old daughter named Fiona, Thistlethwaite owns her own sustainable farm, the “Tastes Like Chicken” or TLC Ranch. She and her husband keep the business sustainable by owning open-pasture grass-fed cows, creating their own fertilizer, and practicing minimum tillage on their land, but Thistlethwaite admits that it is very hard to keep up.
“The demand’s there, it’s just hard to catch up with the supply,” she said. “It’s not like sticking a lettuce seed in the ground and 30 days later, boom, you have a head of lettuce.”
Before she began her own farm with her husband, Thistlethwaite was a vegetarian for 12 years. She became a vegetarian for environmental reasons, but once she owned and operated a farm that was completely environmentally friendly, it became possible for her to eat meat again.
“Back in the ’90s … there weren’t a lot of options, even if I did want to eat meat that was raised in more environmentally sustainable ways,” Thistlethwaite said.
According to Marcus, most vegetarians today even find it hard to trust cage-free and organic labels seen so often in local grocery store aisles.
“If you don’t actually visit the farm, you’re taking someone’s word for it,” he said. “You’re taking the word of somebody who has a financial incentive to cut corners.”
Cost is, in fact, a huge issue.
“It would be nice if everyone could afford and opt into eating sustainably, and it wasn’t just rich people who could,” Thistlethwaite said.
This small-time farmer is not the only one in Santa Cruz feeling the hurt of the cost of sustainability. UCSC’s own Dining Services is having trouble switching out their battery-cage liquid eggs for cage-free liquid eggs.
In mid-October 2009, Dining Services promised to do just that by January 2010, but the deal fell through when cage-free egg costs rose and the large demands were not met with equal supply by farmers.
Candy Berlin, program coordinator of Dining Services, explained the catch-22 situation.
“We have to look at two factors: cost and volume,” she said. “Some farmers had good prices, but then couldn’t supply us the amount that we needed.”
Thistlethwaite did not feel that this problem was difficult to overcome.
“If the university would just commit to it, maybe sign a contract with a farmer who can then be assured the income, then the university is assured supply and I think it would move the whole industry in a better direction,” she said.
According to Thistlethwaite, large investment is what small-scale farmers need in order to keep up with demand, and this is UCSC’s opportunity to join UC San Diego and UC Irvine, which have already made the switch.
“The other UCs don’t have the volume we have here,” Berlin said. “You’re not comparing apples to apples. You’re comparing small volume to big volume. When the price goes up, we have to suck it up.”
According to Berlin, other UC campuses only support about half the number of students on meal plans compared to UCSC, which currently has 7,000 students signed up.
Dining Services is taking steps to reduce its carbon footprint, however, by holding events like the first-ever meatless day this past January, held at the Crown/Merrill Dining Hall. Clint Jeffries, unit manager of the dining hall, expressed his optimism that the event was a success.
“We actually had really good feedback from non-vegetarians and non-vegans who appreciated what we did,” Jeffries said.
Berlin and Dining Services plan to hold another meatless day in April, in conjunction with Earth Day, at the College Eight-Oakes Dining Hall. Eric Deardorff, a nine-year vegan and co-founder of Banana Slugs for Animals, worked with Dining Services in planning the meal choices for the meatless day. He was optimistic about the outcome.
“The number-one cause of global warming, according to the United Nations, is animal agriculture and meat production,” he said. “This was the single best way the school could reduce its carbon footprint.”
However, some people are still concerned that Dining Services is not taking all of the steps possible in the cage-free egg debate. Marcus, who has been working on the issue with Dining Services Director Scott Berlin since 2006, expressed his disappointment with the situation.
“You can always use [cost] as an excuse, but I don’t think that’s logical … given the outrageous amounts of cruelty,” he said. “Especially since this is not a brand-new proposal. It’s been more than three years of foot-dragging.”
Also, with the 63 percent majority passage of Proposition 2 in 2008 — which banned battery-cage eggs altogether by the year 2015 — many are skeptical about the reasoning behind not switching, especially since the university is a taxpayer and state-supported institution.
Berlin stated simply, “I can’t say when the UC system is going to move toward following that. That I can’t answer.”
Thistlethwaite believes that the switch should be made sooner rather than later.
“Prop. 2 passed, so UCSC should go along with the voters of California,” she said. “They’re going to be banned anyway in a few years, so why not start that transition now and get people used to paying more for it?”
Deardorff and Marcus have done research looking into how much it would cost per meal-plan holder per month to use cage-free liquid eggs. Their estimate comes to about $3. Scott Berlin, however, said this number had no concrete foundation.
“We don’t count the cost that way,” he said.
Berlin added that because of inflation, the university is trying to cut any costs they can avoid, at least for the time being.
“After utilities, water, etc., we’re looking at about $1 million inflation, and 70 grand more for eggs,” he said. “… It’s just not a realistic picture.”
Many still believe, however, that the dining halls should switch based on public opinion. Santa Cruz residents passed Proposition 2 in the county with an overwhelming 73 percent majority.
“I think that’s really inexcusable,” Marcus said. “For UCSC to be serving battery-cage eggs in a state that has already voted to ban them for cruelty, that’s just inexcusable.”
Marcus admitted that things might not change as fast as he hopes they will. He is optimistic about practice changes coming about eventually, but for now, there is an easy short-term solution.
“There’s a surprising amount of cruelty and suffering embedded in virtually every animal product, and so moving toward a vegan diet or becoming vegan or vegetarian can eliminate tremendous amounts of suffering,” he said. “… And it’s just ridiculously delicious.”