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Vegetarians at Microsoft - a worldwide mission

International Vegetarian Union | 03/31/10

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The Microsoft website states: 'Our Mission: . . .to help people throughout the world realize their full potential'. A staff member in India put us in touch with Mark Aggar, the leader of a group within the company which is taking that mission to a new internal level. Mark is based at the Redwood, WA, campus, and agreed to be interviewed for IVU Online News:

How long have you been vegetarian?

I became vegetarian over 15 years ago, and officially declared myself as vegan in 1999, coincidentally just before I started at Microsoft.

What is Vegetarians at Microsoft? When did it form?

MSVeg (as it's known informally) is a group for vegans, vegetarians and anyone looking for veg-friendly food choices at Micrososft. I formed MSVeg in 2004, but didn't start promoting it until 2005. After an article in our weekly internal 'newspaper', we grew to about 350 members. We now have about 650 active members, but I estimate that at least a couple thousand people have been part of the group over time.

What was it like to be a vegan at Microsoft 10 years ago?

Very hit and miss. I got to know the café staff very quickly, and even had some folks making special items just for me. But if I needed to eat at another café, there was no guarantee I'd find something to eat. And don't get me started on food preparation practices!

How did the idea arise to form the organisation?

It was formed out of frustration of not having very good or consistent vegan choices in the MS cafeterias and the suspicion that there were a lot of folks at MS who felt the same. Basically I formed it to create a loud voice for better food choices for veg*ns.

Do you receive support from Microsoft?

Initially it was purely grass roots. However, after a particularly vociferous discussion on the DL (Distribution List, similar to a Listserv) following an incident involving a mislabelled soup, our VP of Human Resources instructed our food service provider (Eurest, part of Compass Group) to 'fix it'. She apparently understood the significance that one places on being veg*n. After that. things started getting a lot better, and Eurest were very good about reaching out to us to understand our needs and concerns. They now hold a quarterly meeting with members of the MSVeg where we discuss issues, suggest improvements and review progress and upcoming changes.

Tell me about the types of changes you've seen since meeting with Eurest.

Change has been significant and very much appreciated. Aside from increases in choices (the primary goal), there is a much greater awareness of veg issues among all levels of the dining staff. Food preparation is much better: there are green handled serving spoons and spatulas, green cutting boards and training for the staff on how to use these. Additionally, there are many specialty items such as vegan cheese and mayo. The most recent highlight has been a Eurest operated vegetarian 'café' that serves items such as mushroom and root vegetable flatbreads and oven baked sweet potato 'fries'.

Have you tried to reach out to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to encourage them to promote vegetarianism in the charitable work in health and education?

No. Thought about it, but frankly, being at Microsoft doesn't make it any easier for me to do this than anyone else outside the company. There are two very distinct organizations.

What types of people are members of Vegetarians at Microsoft?

Everyone and anyone. We have everyone from committed vegan raw foodists to folks are who looking for help in becoming vegetarian.

Do you sense that more people on your campus are moving towards vegetarianism? If so, why?

Having veg choices out there in plain view is definitely moving people to eat less animal products. I've had lunch with many omnivores that eat a lot more veg food now than before, because of the choices that are available. Some are even on a journey to becoming completely veg.

Has there been any kind of backlash, for example, a 'Carnivores at Microsoft' organisation?

Funny you should ask. When MSVeg was first getting broad exposure, I think someone did create that very group. It didn't last long though. However, there is a 'Bacon Fans at Microsoft' group. We even had an on-going thread about 'bacon bits' that had both groups on the to: line. Some good natured banter between the two groups but nothing really adversarial.

What are the purposes of the group? What ideas do you have for the future of the organisation?

The group has achieved its initial goal (getting the food service company to provide better options), so we're generally in 'maintain and improve' mode. On the improve side, I'm trying to drive the notion of 'vegan by default'. That is if only one veg dish is available at a catered event, make sure it's vegan so it is suitable for everyone.

Do you know of similar organisations at other IT companies?

No, but maybe with this article we can start a coalition of corporate veg groups and drive the food service industry everywhere to cater to vegans.

Veg @ Microsoft is a member of the International Vegetarian Union: www.ivu.org



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