On most days, a vegetarian hill worker’s lunch options are depressing: soggy salad-bar greens, a greasy grilled cheese, or maybe—just maybe—a wrap from the sandwich station made of cheese and leftover garnishes. A few months ago, Michael Shank, then an aide to California Representative Mike Honda, found himself sick of this situation, and after conversing with his fellow veggies, he learned that they were, too. So they did what like-minded people on Capitol Hill do: They formed a caucus.
The Congressional Vegetarian Staff Association hoped their caucus would be educational in mission and bipartisan in membership. It began in March of this year with half-a-dozen staffers and has grown to a mailing list of more than a hundred. Democratic freshman Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu member of Congress, lent the organization an official imprimatur. When it came to their own lunch options, the vegetarians had a simple wish: “We’d at least occasionally like to see some hot food that is not cheese pizza,” says Adam Sarvana, the communications director for Arizona Democrat Raúl Grijalva and president of the caucus. So the group wrote a letter to Restaurant Associates, the New York–based company that runs at least 18 of the Hill’s eateries. They asked for a meeting to discuss adding better vegetarian food to the cafeteria menus.
Little did the members of the vegetarian caucus know that, in making this request, they were blundering onto one of Washington’s favorite symbolic battlegrounds. Previous episodes of cafeteria drama include “freedom fries”—when House Republicans renamed French fries to punish France for opposing the invasion of Iraq—and the time Dennis Kucinich broke his tooth on an olive pit and sued for $150,000 (typical liberal litigiousness, his conservative enemies said). Shortly after John Boehner took power as House speaker in 2011, Hill staffers discovered that Nancy Pelosi’s compostable cups and cutlery had been replaced with plastic and Styrofoam. Lunch on Capitol Hill, in other words, looks a lot like Washington itself: theatrical, pointlessly partisan, and overrun by special interests.
Restaurant Associates never replied to the vegetarian caucus’s letter. But not long after, a sign appeared in the Longworth House Office Building cafeteria advertising MEATLESS MONDAY, a public campaign run out of Johns Hopkins University that encourages people to go vegetarian one day a week. “Seemingly separately, they hopped on the Meatless Monday bandwagon without ever having really consulted us,” Sarvana says. It was just one buffet table in one cafeteria one day a week, but it was, from the vegetarians’ perspective, an improvement.
They probably should have known better. Last summer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had similarly encouraged its employees to choose weekly vegetarian dishes at its cafeterias on Monday. The ensuing freakout rose all the way to one of the GOP’s favorite outrage organs: Chuck Grassley’s Twitter feed. “I will eat more meat on Monday to compensate for stupid USDA recommendation abt a meatless Monday,” the senator from Iowa pledged. (His fellow Iowan, Representative Steve King, vowed, “I will have double rib-eye Mondays instead.”)
Back in Longworth, a farm-industry lobbyist spotted the MEATLESS MONDAY sign and called Steve Kopperud, a balding, bespectacled former newspaper reporter. Kopperud is himself a lobbyist who represents the Farm Animal Welfare Coalition (FAWC), which combats the “animal rights community and their attacks on agriculture.”
Kopperud and the FAWC wrote a letter to the House Administration Committee, which oversees daily operations in the lower chamber, decrying the Meatless Monday concept as “an acknowledged tool of animal rights and environmental organizations who seek to publicly denigrate U.S. livestock and poultry production.” Not long after the FAWC sent the letter, Restaurant Associates discontinued the program. The vegetarian caucus wrote another letter to say they were “profoundly disappointed”—and they’re still waiting for a response.
At this point, the Beltway press corps smelled potential for a controversy like the one at USDA. “Big Ag’s Tactics to Stop Meatless Monday Are a Disgrace” seethed a blogger at The Huffington Post. Yahoo! News posted a blog entry whose author wrote, with abandon, “the livestock industry basically hogtied the House of Representatives quicker than the calf-ropers at your average rodeo and ‘forced’ them to abandon Meatless Mondays in House cafeterias on Capitol Hill.”
The vegetarians were bewildered, pegged as the losers in a special-interest fight they weren’t even aware they were a part of. As a caucus, they were mostly focused on hosting educational events, like vegan cooking demonstrations and visits from health experts. After the media circus, the drama proceeded to its next natural act. A staffer from the Congressional Progressive Caucus set up a summit between the vegetarians and Kopperud, as well as representatives from the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Council of Pork Producers, among others. The farm-industry folks made clear they didn’t want the cafeteria using the term “Meatless Monday.” The staffers assured them that they didn’t really care about the term and had never asked for it in the first place. In return, Kopperud agreed to draft a follow-up e-mail to the House Administration Committee noting that his group had no problem with meatless menu items in general.
Restaurant Associates, meanwhile, employed the more predictable political crisis response: They clammed up. A spokeswoman apologized for “any confusion caused by incorrect signage,” and refused to answer follow-ups. An exasperated staffer from the Chief Administrative Office of the House finally explained to me the origin of the entire manufactured controversy. “This was one worker [for Restaurant Associates] who was new to the Hill cafeterias who put up one sign at one food cafeteria on one day,” he sighed. “He made a mistake. All of this has grown out of that.”
“We didn’t expect a knock-down, drag-out fight,” says Sarvana. “We are just trying to get it over with and get our food back.”
So far that hasn’t happened. Months after they started their caucus, the Hill vegetarians are still scraping together meals from the same, sad cafeteria options. Sometimes even lunchtime ends in gridlock.
Marin Cogan is writer-at-large for National Journal.