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Should plant-based milk be free in coffee shops?

A morning coffee upon arrival to campus is enough of an unjustified expense on its own. Seeing the extra charge for non-dairy milks piles on the guilt and is almost enough to make me reconsider. And by reconsider I mean play Russian roulette with my bowels by ordering dairy milk and hoping for the best. Though never tested, I suspect that I suffer from a mild form of lactose intolerance, along with 65% of the global population. That, coupled with the caffeine, plus the speed at which I like to consume hot drinks, and a full-fat mocha can become my stomach’s worst enemy.

Surely seeing that you have to pay more, though it is a tiny price relative to the drink, will put people off. And how small is it really? Ranging from 10 to 30p on campus, this extra charge may not seem like much, but a coffee per weekday can set you back on average £1 a week. 10 weeks a term, 3 terms a year, and that can add up to quite a bit just on milk. This does not even factor in how much some independent and high street chains may charge.

Charging more for non-dairy milks reinforces the idea that veganism is only for the middle classes.

As mentioned before, 65% of the world has a reduced ability to digest dairy. Obviously the percentage in the UK is probably a lot less, but there clearly is a need for plant-based milks in coffees. This does not even take into account the rise of veganism and our move to a more health-conscious society. There are a number of reasons why people might shun dairy, from ethical to environmental to—as in my case—gastric. 

It is the same as with other animal products such as meat. And yet, vegan and vegetarian products at cafes do not come with an added charge for their meat or dairy substitutes. While it may be true that these options can be quite expensive, there are always lower cost options that are similarly priced to sandwiches and cakes containing meat or dairy. There is no ‘vegan charge’ on a price board as there practically is with plant-based milks.

Charging more for non-dairy milks reinforces the idea that veganism is only for the middle classes. Though I am not suggesting that a few pence a cup is what stops people from making the move over, an added charge certainly makes the choice seem like more of a trivial whim for the fussy or an act to signal one’s virtue than a committed lifestyle decision.

What makes this worse is that some companies are actively encouraging customers to seek plant-based alternatives to milk. Starbucks have started pushing for this, and have also introduced two non-dairy coffee drinks on the menu. It seems duplicitous to say that you care about those who reject dairy and all the reasons for their decision, and then continue to charge them more anyway. No wonder they are encouraging it, as it just means a (slightly) higher profit for them! 

Despite real difficulties in providing plant-based milks, it is the attitude towards those who want it that is behind the surcharge.

The coffee shops on campus are no better, charging a similar rate to Starbucks for their almond and soy milk options. Who could resist all the Veganuary advertising, when the cafes will continue to charge you more for taking part? Why is it that they charge you more in the first place anyway? According to the Vegan Society, companies will use the cheapest brands of dairy milk, but the more expensive ones for plant-based alternatives. This is apparently because the cheaper plant-based milks do not froth very well. There is also a problem of finding distributors who can deliver and sell these alternatives.

Starbucks apparently found a way around this by creating their own almond milk in 2016. This was made with the intention of pairing well with both their hot and cold beverages. Despite this, they still charge more for the milk as they see substituting as a ‘customisation’. This shows that despite real difficulties in providing plant-based milks, it is the attitude towards those who want it that is behind the surcharge.

But there is hope for the future. Soy milk has started to become available for free in many branded chains such as Starbucks, Cafè Nero and even Greggs. Not only this, but some stores have even started offering other plant-based milks free of charge as well. Costa announced they were offering Almond, Coconut and Lactofree milks free of charge over Christmas, and will continue to do so through Veganuary and into February. Though customers will have to pay for these again on 4 March. 

Pret have announced that they are offering all milk alternatives free of charge indefinitely. This is a great move that I would love to see other chains—particularly the ones on campus—get behind, if not only for my bowels. 

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