On Monday evening, students gathered in Goodrich to discuss a recent movement to reduce the purchase and consumption of industrial beef by 50 percent on campus. The event was organized by the thinkFOOD chapter at the College and led by Jordan Fields ’17, Max Harmon ’18 and Eleanor Lustig ’18. The Williams Environmental Council, Williams Sustainable Growers and Williams Recovery of All Perishable Surplus hosted the event in partnership with thinkFOOD.
To start the conversation, Fields, Harmon and Lustig each presented on different aspects of industrialized beef. Harmon described the history of industrialized beef, saying, “Cattle have been moved from traditional farming operations into the hands of four companies. These four companies control 85 percent of the meat industry in the United States.”
According to Harmon, the $350,000 dining services pays for industrialized beef annually does not include externalized costs. “We buy so much beef because it’s cheap,” Harmon said. “But we think it’s unacceptable to support companies which externalize costs onto the environment and government.”
Fields elaborated on the environmental cost associated with industrialized beef. “Beef is a dangerous environmental product. Livestock producers account for 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, but if we stop consuming industrial beef, we will put less methane into the air,” Fields said. “Because methane only exists in the atmosphere for 12 years before dispersing, we have the potential to make effectual change.”
After contextualizing the movement within the national industrialized beef industry, Lustig shifted the conversation to the impact on campus. “This year we are renegotiating our contract with US Foods. If we make the commitment to purchase 50-percent less industrialized beef, we will strengthen our commitment to reducing our environmental impact,” Lustig said.
ThinkFOOD has support from dining services and College Council (CC); however, CC wants to see student-wide support before proposing a resolution. If this change is put into effect, thinkFOOD and other organizations will negotiate with dining services about how to use the money made from cutting the volume of industrial beef in half. Lustig cited increased wages for dining services employees, higher quality ingredients and more local products as possible outcomes from the extra capital.
The leaders of thinkFOOD recognize the significance of the movement in the history of the College. “There is no precedent for this process. My predecessor on the Dining Services Committee was devoted to getting chicken wings at Snack Bar, and he was president for four years. There is no precedent for students making large dining changes,” Harmon said. “Dining services needs some signal of student support, and I think our partnership with CC makes the most sense.”
During the following discussion, students challenged the impact on food choices given the potential change. “We are not telling anyone how to eat. That’s a personal decision central to identity,” Fields said.
Lustig commented on how students might have to be more conscious on a reduced-beef campus: “Online menus would become more important. People would have to make the conscious decision if they wanted to eat beef.”
Another question left unanswered is the demand for beef from the student body. Fields described his personal opinion. “We have been purchasing the same amount of beef for years,” he said. “In other words, dining services just decided to serve a given amount of beef at some point. So I think students are just eating what is put in front of them rather than demanding beef.”
Food is not factored into institutional emission levels with respect to the College’s commitment to be carbon neutral by 2020; therefore, progress made within dining services only complements the larger commitment to sustainability.
When considering their long-term goal, the leaders of thinkFOOD want to hear student voices. “It depends on how everyone responds. Right now we are still a small group of students, and we should not be making these major decisions for the future alone,” Fields said.