Ashley Austin: Meatless Mondays of indoctrination

Wednesday, November 4, 2015 - 7:45pm

The World Health Organization released a jarring report Oct. 26 that identifies processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen — meaning that it has a firm link to cancer. This finding adds traction to the Meatless Monday movement, which encourages individuals to not eat meat on Mondays in order to improve their health and to promote environmental conservation. On a weekly basis, University Dining hosts Meatless Mondays at East Quad. University Dining presents Meatless Mondays at East Quad as a public health and environmental sustainability initiative: Although altruistic, the fact that students attending this dining hall on Mondays do not have the freedom to choose whether to eat meat or not brings about questions of the role of the University in limiting food options.

Meatless Mondays are an example of the extension of the University’s public health and environmental initiatives in the food realm. Other initiatives include choosing Michigan farmers for vegetables, fruits, honey and milk served in all of the dining halls, with East Quad additionally serving meats sourced less than 250 miles away from campus. This allows for fresh and local ingredients to be served in the dining halls, while also reducing the carbon footprint that would be created with large transportation distances. This initiative does not controversially inflict a limitation of choice upon students: Yes, students are less likely to have honey in their tea from across the Atlantic, but having locally grown honey has few drawbacks for students if the University can negotiate ingredients at a competitive rate that does not alter meal plan costs. Furthermore, University Dining has paired with a company known as Sea to Table that helps the University find sustainable fishery suppliers. Yet again, having fish that comes from sustainable and eco-friendly suppliers does little to have cause for students to object if costs are not significantly increased.

However, Meatless Mondays go much further than these other initiatives because meat consumption is such an intrinsic and natural act for a human to engage in. We are omnivores, and although some chose to become vegetarians (5 percent of Americans according to a 2012 Gallup poll), the vast majority of University students and Americans consume meat on a daily basis. In fact, the Wall Street Journal calculates that the average American adult who consumes meat eats about 0.36 pounds of meat a day. Meat provides humans with essential proteins and fats that facilitate survival, so the tendency to consume meat is functional and healthy, but of course damaging if overdone. The World Health Organization highlights in its Oct. 26 report that consumption of 50 grams (0.11 pounds) of processed meat is linked with an 18 percent increased risk of colorectal cancer. Yet this increased risk is a relative risk increase, meaning that it does not include personal risk factors such as pre-existing conditions and age in its calculations. The National Cancer Institute’s colorectal calculator does not even include risks for those under the age of 50.

University Dining mentions the association between meat and cancer on their webpage explaining Meatless Mondays, a notable concern, but not a sweeping public health concern considering that the association is only proven for people consuming meat at ages far exceeding the mean age of a Michigan student.

Furthermore, the notion in itself that students' access to meat should be limited oversteps a previously established boundary. The University of Michigan Dining website includes pages that provide explanations of accommodations for students with special nutritional needs or dietary constraints from religious observations. This ideology is compromised when East Quad only serves vegetarian options on Mondays, not accommodating the majority of students who eat meat on a daily basis.

Considering that the association between colorectal cancer and processed meat consumption for those under the age of 50 is not proven, the public health justifications do not seem to outweigh the University’s own aim to accommodate all students. After all, during various religious holidays with dietary restrictions, University Dining strives to accommodate religious students but does not universally eliminate access to meat and other foods. Meatless Mondays at East Quad exemplify a doctrine of public health and environmental sustainability being pushed onto students at the expense of student agency in food choice.

Ashley Austin can be reached at agracea@umich.edu.