When Meir Lesches arrived on campus his freshman year, he didn’t realize that his biggest struggle would be finding something to eat.
Lesches, now a sophomore, has always followed a strict kosher diet – but a lack of on-campus kosher options caused him to lose 30 pounds last year, he said. There are just five kosher-friendly vendors on GWorld – a shortfall Lesches said made him consider transferring to schools with “stronger” kosher choices, like New York University.
“If the kosher options were nothing and I knew that, I wouldn’t have come here,” Lesches said.
Lesches said it’s easier to maintain a kosher diet this year because he has a kitchen in Shenkman Hall and can buy groceries at Trader Joe’s, which doesn’t accept GWorld, because the store sells kosher meat in a sectioned-off area of the store.
On a campus without a dining hall, students are left to rely heavily on local restaurants and those that keep kosher said a lack of GWorld options has made it difficult to stick to the diet. But officials said they’re taking steps to research more kosher options beyond the existing venues by hosting pop-up kosher shops and offering information to students about grocery stores that sell kosher food.
Alicia Knight, the senior associate vice president of operations, said the University has spent the last year developing resources for students with dietary restrictions, including those who follow a kosher diet. She pointed to the creation of a kosher student dining representative, who tweets about kosher dining options on and around campus, last fall.
She said officials hosted kosher pop-up shops last year, featuring vendors like Soupergirl and CharBar. The offerings will continue this year on a “regular basis,” she said, and officials will also advertise kosher options available at GWorld grocery vendors.
Knight said officials are also looking into new vendors to “help facilitate kosher eating” but declined to say which vendors the University is considering.
“A number of GW staff related to our dining program are consistently in contact with area vendors that would help provide additional options for students with specific dietary needs, and we are now integrating our new kosher dining representation into these efforts,” Knight said in an email.
She added that officials are continuing work with GW Hillel, which plans to open a kosher dining venue in spring 2020 in its renovated building. Knight said the venue will be available on GWorld when it opens.
Currently, five vendors – CVS, Whole Foods, Safeway, CharBar and the Brooklyn Sandwich Company – offer kosher dining options on GWorld.
Nolan Hausler, the president of Chabad Colonials who keeps a kosher diet, said that aside from weekly Shabbat dinners hosted by Jewish student organizations or GWorld vendors, there’s no “around the clock” option for students to find kosher foods.
Brooklyn Sandwich Company, one of the five kosher vendors on GWorld, operates out of a food truck and only visits campus about three times per week, he said.
Hausler said the limited number of vendors is unusual for a large university, pointing to GW’s peer institutions, like New York and Boston universities, which serve kosher meals at a market and a dining room with a separate kosher meat and cheese refrigerator, respectively.
“I’ve heard there are students every year that choose other colleges because the availability of kosher options is much more,” he said.
Hausler said the dining representative program is a good way to promote different kosher meals, but students who eat kosher food often already know their options without the help of a dining representative.
“Anyone who keeps kosher knows you can go and buy Chobani yogurt and that’s kosher, so tweeting out that this is breakfast yogurt and granola – that’s not helping people find new options if they’re looking for a traditional kosher living situation,” Hausler said.
Junior Shep Gerszberg said he received a housing exemption this year because he was assigned to live with students who do not follow kosher diets. Keeping a kosher diet was relatively easy for his first two years because he lived by himself in Mitchell Hall, but he said it would be difficult to live with non-kosher students because their food would be stashed in the same refrigerator.
“It hurts the Jewish experience overall,” Gerszberg said. “The one kosher restaurant and one kosher food truck both take GWorld, but it’s hard to afford those places every day and we don’t have the same kind of options that non-kosher keepers have.”
Nearly 30 percent of undergraduates are Jewish, according to Hillel International.
Sophomore Zachary Bernstein said he’s had to compromise his kosher diet at times since coming to campus, like only eating vegetarian meals at restaurants without kosher meat and eating cheese that wasn’t prepared on a kosher surface.
“Unless you never eat out, it’s practically impossible to keep perfectly kosher,” he said. “I knew coming in what the dining plan was like, and I knew I was going to have to make these kinds of compromises.”
Liora Bernstein, the president of GW Hillel, said the new kosher vendor in the GW Hillel building will allow students who keep kosher to eat meat regularly at an on-campus GWorld vendor.
“Not everyone wants to get a vegetarian meal every time they go out,” she said. “It might ease a lot of stress, especially for freshmen who don’t have a kitchen, it’ll make their lives a lot easier because they can actually get some protein.”
Dani Grace contributed reporting.