The Roots of PBU at Caltech


Members of Caltech PBU with the banner they painted for the PBU Launch event in January.

When I sat down with Elena Priesen-Reis, a 2nd-year graduate student in Material Science, to discuss Plant-Based Universities (PBU) at Caltech, one word frequently reappeared: “community”.** **Elena brought the idea of PBU from her experiences at her undergraduate institution, the University College London (UCL). Over this year, she has spearheaded the PBU effort under the Graduate Student Council Sustainability Committee.

The global PBU initiative began with the idea that student activism and radicalism have driven some of the most drastic sustainability changes. For example, some of the first institutions to divest from fossil fuels were universities through student-driven petitions. PBU hopes to achieve the same effect through university-student-driven initiatives on divestment from animal agriculture. Animal Rising is the larger, UK-based organization that houses the PBU campaign. The parent organization focuses on tackling climate change by reconnecting humans with animals by encouraging institutions to transition to 100% plant-based catering and dining products. Their resonating mission is to enact “change through campaigns that build social pressure to tackle the animal, nature, and climate emergencies and create a better world for all life**.**”

While there are likely to be around 100 PBU campaigns globally by the end of the 2023-2024 academic year, there are only 3 active campaigns in the US, with Caltech leading the charge. The other two chapters are Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, and Columbia University in New York City. Elena emphasized that while there aren’t many chapters in the US yet, the support and guidance she received from the PBU overhead leadership has been astounding and helpful in getting Caltech’s chapter off the ground. She also mentioned being in a group chat with the leads of the other US chapters.

Not only has PBU at Caltech gotten off the ground this year, but they have already had smash-hit events and seen marked changes in Caltech dining. The PBU Launch event on 30 January had over 300 attendees, so many that an additional round of food had to be ordered from Veggie Grill. Veggie Grill is a vegan restaurant on Lake Street that serves a variety of options that are almost indistinguishable from their non-plant–based counterparts. Elena emphasized how wonderful the staff at Veggie Grill were to work with and how eager they were to show up for PBU’s Launch Event when the initial catering plan fell through on the day of the event. When Elena went into Veggie Grill after the event to get dinner for herself, she found they were cleaned out of food from pouring everything they had into supporting the plant-based Caltech event.

This kindness and investment from members of the plant-based community is something that came up frequently in Elena and my conversation about connecting Caltech and the larger plant-based community. At another recent event, the GSC Champagne and Chocolate Night, the snacks offered were almost entirely plant-based. The charcuterie (usually an extremely difficult item to make entirely plant-based) was provided enthusiastically by local plant-based butchershop Maciel’s. Caltech’s Undergraduate Vegan Dessert Club provided part of the desserts for this event, with the other part baked by Elena. Following this event, the GSC plans to make its events at least 50% plant-based. Both events share the same message: the plant-based community shows up for each other.

In a recent poll from the GSC, they found that over ⅙ of the graduate community is vegan or vegetarian, and at least 60% would like to see more plant-based options on campus. True to its vision to act as a liaison between the Caltech students and dining services, PBU began discussions with Caltech Dining to increase the number of plant-based options offered in Browne, Broad, and Red Door. PBU was met with enthusiasm because Caltech Dining had unsuccessfully attempted to pilot Meatless Monday a few years ago. Caltech Dining recounted that students were not entirely aware of why Meatless Monday was implemented. Elena expressed Dining’s excitement that PBU could act as the “voice and connection to students” to communicate the sustainability significance of an event such as Meatless Monday or any other changes implemented by Caltech Dining to improve plant-based options.

Since this dialogue has begun, Browne has opened a plant-based station at Browne with a dedicated chef. The plant-based station is part of a push, alongside implementing oat milk as a default milk option at Red Door, to make the most convenient option the sustainable option. “This is why the link with Caltech Dining is crucial,” Elena said. “Personal change of the students as a result of our efforts is absolutely amazing and what we strive for, but the big change that we want to see is Caltech itself choosing more wisely what it invests in. What is served on campus is a reflection of Caltech is tolerable of and agrees with in terms of investment.” There has also been feedback from undergraduates about increasing the plant-based options for students who are heavily reliant on the variety of options available at on-campus dining. The meal plan is rigid for plant-based undergrads and “not very plant-forward” so this is yet another change PBU hopes to undertake in the future.

Any university is an extremely powerful place, as we’ve seen in the incredible brainpower at work each day on Caltech’s campus. Particularly for a place such as Caltech, a very sustainability-oriented institution, PBU sits at an optimal location to foster discussions and education about its mission. PBU hopes to bring in a speaker soon to tap into this quality of Caltech. Going forward, PBU hopes to continue their passionate petition for a plant-based Caltech from the research and science-driven direction we all can align with as future scientists ourselves.

For more information about the PBU initiative, check out For more information about PBU at Caltech and information about future events, check out their Instagram: pbucaltech. For Elena’s extensive (and delicious) library of vegan recipes on a student budget, check out her Instagram: chefelena_.