Mondays, meatless no more: MDining's quest for sustainability

Tuesday, January 23, 2018 - 5:36pm

At the Campus Farm.

At the Campus Farm. Buy this photo
Prashanth Panicker/Daily

 

Even when I still ate meat, I loved Meatless Monday. Saying this is much like a middle school student who openly admits to enjoying school. For one day, the University of Michigan’s East Quad Residence Hall’s dining hall removed meat from the premises and served all vegetarian and vegan dishes. Given the challenge, the menu renounced its standard meat-and-potato options and served dishes like falafel pitas and vegan pot pie.

Unfortunately, I’m probably alone in saying that. Most of my peers would do anything to avoid Meatless Monday. Even my friends who lived in East Quad would forgo convenience and trudge through rain or snow to South Quad Residence Hall’s dining hall. On the other days of the week, East Quad was almost always packed to capacity, forcing students to awkwardly share tables with strangers. But this flock of carnivores migrating away every Monday guaranteed a barren dining hall filled with a glut of seating options.

In recent years, the University as a whole has struggled to meet its own goals to reduce both waste and greenhouse gas emissions. Using measurements in 2006 as the baseline, the goal was to reduce waste by 40 percent, to 7,900 tons. Not only has it failed to do so, but it has moved in the opposite direction: In 2016, waste totaled 14,100 tons, nearly 1,000 more than 2006. And although the University has made more progress reducing greenhouse gases, it is still 132,000 metric tons short of its goal.

Nevertheless, there was little transparency when MDining silently abandoned Meatless Monday this past fall, causing great confusion that a quick Google search couldn’t fix. I thought, perhaps, the meat-eaters student lobby grew too strong to be ignored — that, or Tyson Foods donated $100 million to the School for Environment and Sustainability to fund a sustainable food program given that MDining exclusively serves chicken. Granted, I’m definitely the only person on campus who spends their free time thinking about potential Meatless Monday conspiracy theories.

The reality is more straightforward: Meatless Monday was always about sustainability, and MDining felt there were more effective measures to promote this rather than getting rid of meat in one dining hall only to have students migrate to meat-serving locations. So, in fall 2017 and without fanfare, Sustainable Monday took over campus-wide.

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It’s possible that student backlash won MDining over. In a column published by The Daily in 2015 — titled “Meatless Mondays of indoctrination” — Ashley Austin wrote Meatless Monday eliminated students’ freedom to choose whether or not to eat meat.

“The notion in itself that students’ access to meat should be limited oversteps a previously established boundary,” she wrote.

This sent a strong message to the University community: Students don’t like having meat taken away, and they will be heard. Despite my affinity for Meatless Monday, some of the criticism was warranted. There were days when the menus included all of the typical meat dishes, but with flimsy fake-meat swapped in.  

Elliott Rains, marketing coordinator of MDining, and Keith Soster, director of Student Engagement of MDining, denied Meatless Monday had been a flop, stating that the new initiative seeks to be more impactful.

“I think one of the biggest pushbacks we got with Meatless Monday was that we were taking something away from people,” Rains said. “Reintroducing meat in some capacity on a Monday makes it more accessible to people … And if you can eat something that's healthy and good for you one day of the week, then maybe that will build positive behaviors.”

To me, this seemed like a peculiar justification. Livestock contributes to 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, more than automobiles. Cutting back on meat altogether is one of the most effective ways to mitigate climate change and promote sustainability.  If serving meat is unsustainable, then why, in fostering sustainability, would you choose to do so?

Yet, Soster believes MDining is playing its part in reducing waste and not contributing to the upward trend.

All dining halls implement 100 percent pre-consumer composting, which takes the remains of unused foods, like carrot peels and watermelon rinds, and allows them to decompose naturally. To complement this, MDining began using compostable food packaging in all its facilities. Even though one-third of campus-wide waste is food, this also includes units outside of the dining halls, like office kitchens, according to Soster.

“We’re the biggest department in student life and one of the biggest ones on campus,” Soster said. “We have not only a responsibility to lead, but to give great examples … If we model the behavior, we’re hoping that others will follow.”

Campus Farm.

Campus Farm. Buy this photo
Prashanth Panicker/Daily

 

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The pinnacle of MDining’s sustainability efforts, which expand beyond Mondays, lies just seven miles northeast of Central Campus.

Starting in fall 2017, MDining began buying food from the Campus Farm and using it in dining halls. This is a clear step toward fulfilling Planet Blue’s sometimes-vague goal of creating a more sustainable campus. Since the farm received its Good Agricultural Practices certificate, it has sold 8,500 pounds of food to MDining in one semester alone, according to LSA junior Connor Kippe, Business and Projects Manager of the Campus Farm.

When I visited the Campus Farm earlier this January, it was hard to imagine sprawling tomato plants and other lush summertime vegetables growing — a thick layer of snow and sub-zero temperatures didn’t quite set the scene. Regardless, they grow cold weather-friendly spinach and kale during the winter months. In the fall, they store squash, beets and other root vegetables to continue selling in the offseason.

Kippe began working for the Campus Farm about a year ago. He works with nine other students on the farm who serve different roles curated to their own specific interests.

Kippe’s interest in the farm grew after taking classes about the impact of food on the environment and people, which inspired him to begin volunteering prior to his first day on the job. Regarding the switch from Meatless Mondays to Sustainable Mondays, Kippe said there was a slightly heated response from vegan students at the University.

“I am for whatever is pragmatic,” Kippe, a vegetarian himself, added. “If doing sustainable Monday everywhere at most of the cafes reduces the amount of meat (consumption) more so than doing just meatless Monday, then I’m a fan of it.”

Kippe also serves as a student ambassador for Planet Blue. I worried Planet Blue was the University’s mechanism of greenwashing; ploys that appear to promote sustainability without actually doing so. Despite the University’s lukewarm improvement with regard to sustainability, Kippe maintains Planet Blue is much more than a mere buzzword to promote sustainability.

“It’s easy to make that claim that Planet Blue is only greenwashing because lots of the things Planet Blue does are behind the scenes, so it doesn’t appear that they’re doing things even when they are,” he said. “The University’s actually trying to move in different areas. Though, it’s having different success at different things.”

As for the farm’s future, Kippe predicts it will continue to grow in the upcoming years, potentially doubling in size.

“I also see us doing more educational work, more vocational work — this has given me a lot of experience for things that I can go and do and change in the future in the environmental field,” Kippe said. “And for my coworkers, it has as well.”

According to Kippe, more important than the farm itself is the culture it breeds.

“We’re creating people who are more able to make that change and more … we’re both increasing the amount of people in that work and also how good they are at doing it,” he said.

Inside one of the main greenhouse units, containers with microgreens — the equivalent of green gold due to their high value — are lined up side-by-side. 30 volunteers accompany me, all helping plant and grow products like the microgreens.

LSA freshman Kellee Byard is one of these frequent volunteers.

“I really like meeting the new people that volunteer here because we’re all like-minded — we all like working with plants, the outdoors and getting our hands dirty,” Byard said. “I’ve done harvesting, we do the planting… (and) helping with maintenance. It’s all fun work in my opinion.”

She said what makes her time spent at the farm most fulfilling is the impact she sees, and eats, on campus.

“Sometimes in the dining hall, I’ll see a certain fruit or veggie … that I know we had worked with —  harvesting spinach, for example,” she said. “Seeing that in the dining halls is super cool, and knowing not having to get it imported from somewhere far away … You’re helping the environment in the sense that it’s local, it’s something done by students here at Michigan.”

Annually, 300 to 400 others like Byard volunteer at the farm. Friends of the Campus Farm, a student-run organization, organizes the volunteers independently.

Campus Farm Manager Jeremy Moghtader said there has recently been more student engagement on the farm, he believes is due to the collaboration with MDining.

“I’ve been impressed that U-M and MDining is sourcing almost now 17.8 percent sustainable and local product into the halls,” he said. “These folks are taking whole beets, roasting them and slicing them to put on the salad bar. That kind of culinary care for taking the locally grown beet and preparing it like that shows a real passion and dedication towards sustainability and towards delicious food.”

Moghtader highlighted the multifaceted effects of food and said it is relevant in everyday life.

“Food sits at this nexus of all of these really important environmental and social issues, whether it’s public health, the economy, climate change, biodiversity … All of those things are really impacted by the food system,” Moghtader said.

As for the future of sustainability on campus, he is optimistic; he views the farm as an educational opportunity and source of inspiration for all.

“Having students be hopeful about this farm and sustainability on campus I think is knowing that people can engage and learn about the food system,” he said. “They can engage in it meaningfully… (not) just learn about it in the classroom but learn about it in a way that allows them to contribute directly to the institution's sustainability.”

Campus Farm.

Campus Farm. Buy this photo
Prashanth Panicker/Daily

 

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About 9 percent of Americans adults are vegetarian, according to Pew Research. The vegetarian population at the University is also small, but nonetheless passionate. LSA senior Aaron Brodkey leads the Michigan Animal Respect Society (MARS), which creates a community for vegetarians on campus. Without speaking on behalf of everyone in MARS, Brodke explained his organization’s views toward the change from Meatless Monday.

“Since the change happened from one dining hall to the entire group of dining halls at the University, this could potentially be a big opportunity that MARS would support because it continues the sustainability message around food, which for the first few years were really just centered around one dining hall,” Brodkey said.

For MARS, it’s a mixed bag — it supports the wide scope of Sustainable Monday, while questioning the lack of transparency on the decision to ax its meatless predecessor.

“Right now there may not be as much clarity around what the university, or MDining, means around Sustainable Mondays, so there is some backlash from members that may feel that it is somewhat regressive by adding animal products back to the menus,” Brodkey said. “Once definitions become more clear, it could present a good opportunity for more sustainable food systems change at the University of Michigan.”

LSA junior Jacalyn Webster has been a vegan for four years. Although she is still relatively new to the University, this change from a meatless to less-meat standard perplexed her.

“If you're going to call something sustainable, and still serve meat, they should be saying why meat is not a sustainable option,” Webster said. “If they’re still going to put it out, use that as an educational opportunity to inform people of what they're eating.”

As for the switch to sourcing locally grown food from the Campus Farm, Webster viewed this as a feat.

“The closer your food is to home, the more sustainable and environmentally friendly that is.”

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At first, MDining’s decision to ditch my beloved Meatless Monday was unsettling. In an age where greenwashing is so pertinent, I worried this was nothing more than a PR campaign. Calling it “Sustainable” Monday, while still serving meat, is like driving a gas guzzling truck that happens to be a hybrid — it’s clearly still fuel inefficient, but at least it’s labeled “eco-friendly.”

However, it’s clear this isn’t entirely the case. Despite these negative trends throughout the University, MDining is playing its part in improving the health of ecosystems and communities, one of Planet Blue’s goals created in 2011.

After my beloved dog Charlie passed away, I started feeling guilt anytime I ate meat. It was conflicting to be so heartbroken by the death of a dog, yet happily eat a bacon cheeseburger. Eventually, this guilt overcame me: I ditched meat altogether in September 2016.

Honoring Charlie’s spirit wasn’t the only factor that led to this change. My older brother and best friend — both longtime vegetarians — had been encouraging me for months to experiment with a meatless diet. Although admittedly lame, the biggest source of inspiration came from trying to impress a girl I had a crush on with our “shared life choices.”

Since then, what has kept me from reverting back to my omnivorous ways is the meat industry's devastating contributions to climate change. I can now put my guilty conscience to ease; at the very least, I feel less guilty about sometimes taking showers that last a few minutes too long.

I’ll do my part in preserving humankind’s longevity. Being vegetarian is by no means a get-out-of-jail-free card. I can’t then drive a Hummer and leave lights unnecessarily on all day. But it definitely helps.

And, it pays respect to my late, dear friend (Rest in peace, Charlie).