Sustainability in food consumption: Religion and environmentalism in the dining halls

Julia Peabody-Harhigh

The term “sustainability” has become a buzzword on college campuses around the country, and Williams is no exception. Especially with strategic planning committees working on new sustainability goals, conversations of how the College can become more sustainable are very relevant. One element of sustainability is food consumption. Each individual has their own unique relationship with food systems. As a part of my internship with the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives, I have been delving into how the backgrounds and identities of Williams students influence their food choices, from varying cultural preferences to religious obligations. Discussions about how to improve food-related sustainability on campus are inseparable from those of whether students’ food needs are being met. 

When Dining Services creates meal plans, they have the difficult task of providing for these vast student needs and considering sustainability, all while working within financial constraints.  One thing that is certain is that Williams students are being called to work together with Dining Services to find solutions to problems regarding balancing sustainability, preference, dietary needs and financial restraints rather than pitting themselves against them. 

One element of identity that shapes one’s interaction with food at the College is religion. Many religions have guidelines and traditions regarding what foods to eat and how to prepare them, which often have parallels with environmentalism and animal ethics. While talking with students about the impact of their religion on their food consumption, I have asked one core question: How can religious ideology and environmentalism work together to improve food sustainability on campus?

In Islam, for instance, Muslims are encouraged to eat only meat that is halal, a certain procedure of animal slaughter that intends to be as respectful and pain-free for the animal as possible. Although the dining halls typically provide halal meat, in Mission it is located in an isolated corner and at Driscoll it is usually available only upon request. Thus, students who eat halal must take food from a separate section of the dining hall, or specifically ask, making their dining hall experience explicitly different from those of non-Muslims. If there is only one halal meat option and a student does not like it, then they are compelled simply not to eat meat at that meal and have fewer options than other students. Similarly, Jewish students who keep kosher also become de facto vegetarians, since our dining halls are not equipped to prepare kosher meat. On the other hand, as some students have shared with me, being restricted on the amount of meat available for them to consume caused them to be more aware of their consumption of meat and ultimately decreased their consumption. Environmentally, this is great, but from an egalitarian perspective it is unfair that these students may have fewer options in the dining hall. 

In the dining halls, labels are necessary for students to know that what they serve themselves aligns with their diet; halal, kosher, vegetarian, gluten free, etc. Nonetheless, we have also become ideologically labeled. When a non-Muslim sees meat labeled “halal,” they think “This means this food is not for me.” Likewise, a non-vegetarian is not likely to see the “vegan station” food in the far corner of Mission — if they even notice it at all — and feel welcome to take from it. When each “kind” of diet has its own isolated meal options, waste is more likely to accrue. When dining services create meal plans, they have the difficult task of providing for a vast number of student needs and demands within financial constraints. 

Combining religious ideology and environmental ideals can help create solutions. Along with many students who choose not to consume meat for their own reasons, many religions advocate eating less meat, such as Hinduism. Often, Muslim and Jewish students who keep halal or kosher consume less meat. As such, replacing some meat options with vegetarian options checks both the boxes for “sustainability” and “providing for all diets.” Likewise, if all chicken served was halal, potential waste created by simultaneously having two separate chicken dishes would be reduced. In the process, the dining hall experience would become more equitable for everyone by eliminating the need to request halal meat or go to a separate station. Of course, procuring more halal meat would increase expenses — so responsibility is placed on students to accept price cuts in other areas. At the same time, students can pressure the administration to give dining services more funding, a restraint that has repeatedly been stated as a barrier to purchasing more sustainable food and providing for the many diets on campus.  

Yes, physically changing the layout of the various stations at the dining hall could help these issues, and purchasing of local/sustainably grown foods and reducing the amount of meat offered will improve the sustainability of our food system at Williams. But these don’t come without other costs — at the same time that students demand a more environmentally friendly food system, we also complain about a lack of options. Dining Services operates within budget constraints, so procuring more locally grown food, which is more expensive than mass-produced food, will inherently take money away from other things. So an equal responsibility rests in the student body. Are you willing to accept a slightly smaller breadth of options in exchange for improved sustainability? What about venturing into the vegetarian sections for a few meals a week, or being okay with eating chicken that is halal? While top down efforts to increase campus food sustainability are important, bottom up, conscious changing of behavior on behalf of students is equally essential.  How will you use your power and responsibility as a student?  

Julia Peabody-Harhigh ’23 is from Concord, New Hampshire.