Beef At Williams – Max Harmon

While attending a college council meeting last week, someone voiced the subject of the beef reductions in dining halls. There was some confusion, then someone explained with apparent certainty what had happened: “A religious girl” had imposed on the campus a reduction in beef “because of animal rights” concerns.

This story of a “religious girl” causing changes to beef purchasing is untrue, but I believe it is important, and telling. Confronted by a threat to a way of eating, a story emerged that gendered the issue, and delegitimized the change on the basis of irrationality. The story said, “the only reason we don’t get to eat beef, is because a girl cares about animal rights (ie, the issue is over-sensitivity), and because she is religious, there is no way her views were rationally founded.” Perhaps I’m reading into this too much, but I don’t think so. This image of religious girl as enemy of Williams’ beefeaters is frighteningly predictable. This emergent story is indicative of a systematic devaluation of certain kinds of opinions.

I know a “religious girl” was not responsible for the changes to beef at Williams because I was responsible. Starting at the beginning of this year, I met with Bob Volpi of Dining Services to figure out a way to dramatically reduce purchases of industrial beef products. After a number of discussions with Mr. Volpi and all the Dining Services chefs, we decided the best strategy would be, during any given week, to have only one dining hall serve the industrial beef products Williams has been purchasing in vast quantities for years. This program was in effect for a little less than two weeks. This would likely constitute about a 60% reduction in industrial beef purchasing.

First, I want to reduce purchases of industrial beef on Williams College campus because I see our food purchasing as a link to an economy and a world beyond this school. From a social, environmental, and political perspective, industrial beef is unambiguously the most destructive product we buy. The reason I am using the term “industrial beef,” is to make clear I have no problem with the killing and eating of cows.

What I have a problem with is the industrial beef system, intimately tied to the larger industrial agriculture system that is unambiguously exploitative of workers, and ecologically destructive on a scale almost unimaginable. With the exception of the (very expensive) beef product we buy from Black River Produce, essentially all of our beef comes from Tyson, Cargill, JBS, or National Beef Packing Co. These companies rely on a model of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, which are defined by the US Government as operations that “congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland” (EPA).

Information on industrial beef is readily available for anyone interested. Some places to start: immigrant exploitation, worker’s rights abuses, manure lagoons, methane emissions, water contamination, chronically ill cattle, the dead-zone in the Gulf of Mexico, rates of obesity and diabetes in low-income and minority communities, corn and petroleum subsidies, etc. Look up the embodied emissions, water, petroleum, and topsoil in a hamburger. All of these are part of the story of industrial beef, a story I believe Williams should have no hand in perpetuating.

The worry of efficacy regarding Williams’ purchasing actually changing the industrial beef and agriculture system is a legitimate one. I am skeptical of the notion of political consumerism, the idea that what we individually choose to purchase has profound political weight. Without a movement, our individual action is not enough. However, insofar as we can do something, to stop lending our implicit and financial support to destructive companies, we should. Other schools, and similar institutions that purchase large amounts of food might also take notice. In the words of an insightful yik-yak contributor: “#divestbeef.”

But more than these hopes, I wanted to start a conversation on this campus. Larger issues such as racial injustice, immigrant exploitation, and ecological destruction are all mediated, supported, and materialized through food and food policy. I saw the possibility of starting a campus conversation about this through the jarring fact that the beef is gone! (It’s not). Let me be clear: I intended from the beginning to force a community conversation, not impose my will on a menu.

So as I “self-righteously” proclaim that we need to stop purchasing industrial beef, that we need to think about food as a materialized connection to local and global problems, I see the charges of hypocrisy looming. Removing industrial beef from Williams would only be hypocritical if I suggested that making such a switch was justification to be content with other aspects of our food system and habits of living. I know we would still be linked to industrial agriculture in nearly every other product we buy. Instead, I propose this switch not because it is the only one necessary, but because it is relatively easy. The impact of beef is orders of magnitude more destructive than any other product, so why not start there? We could make this switch, save money (even industrial beef is way more expensive than plant-based proteins), and have an impact in the world. The money saved could go into a variety of other commendable endeavors such as paying dining services staff more.

I believe there are going to be sacrifices in any genuine effort toward a responsible role in the world of which we are a part. Institutionally, Williams is still trying to forge ahead without genuine sacrifice or behavioral change. I think the question of beef is a powerful test. Are we willing to give up our daily hamburger in order to stop supporting destructive practices? Do we really need to eat beef every day if that money could support the dining services staff working here? What do we care about? What habits are we willing to change? This is a collective question that I believe should determine the menus at Williams College, not my own opinion. But it is a question we have to be honest about. There are real consequences to eating habits, and I am personally uncomfortable with saying my “need” for a hamburger takes priority over a livable planet, healthy communities, or the livelihoods of the workers that serve us.

In order to begin engaging these issues, I’ll be in upstairs Paresky from 12-1pm on Sunday and Monday. You can also fill out a Dining Services Survey.

6 thoughts on “Beef At Williams – Max Harmon

  1. I am skeptical that reductions in beef purchases would actually increase dining staff wages. Have you received any information from Dining Services that a beef reduction has any potential to increase wages for dining staff, or are you simply listing it as a possibility?

    I imagine that most of the money that is “saved” by reducing beef purchases will simply be spent on the other proteins and foods that replace beef place in the menu. If it is not just kept as profit, what is left may not be enough for any substantial increase in dining staff wages.

    Furthermore, it would make more logistical sense to use any the liberated produce funds to reinvest in the quality or variety of current menu offerings, rather than redirect it to staff wages. That way staff wages will not be dependent upon produce costs.

  2. I enjoyed your article and agree with the desire to push back against industrial beef. As a small beef producer in Wyoming, we feel victimized by the meatpacking companies every bit or more than the consumers of that beef. However, until this country recognizes the value of grassfed meat and stops subsidizing and propping up the corn industry, that grassfed product will continue to be very expensive. And on the producer’s end, it is still very hard to make a living in most parts of the country by selling purely grassfed beef.
    Furthermore, industrial agriculture is so environmentally disastrous, that eliminating meat from our tables is not necessarily the answer. Between the overuse of chemical fertilizers and the degradation of topsoil, increasing our grain consumption is not solving our environmental problems.
    There is a very good book called “Defending Beef-the Case for Sustainable Meat Production” which might interest you and add some different perspective to your very commendable desire to reform your Dining Hall menu. Would there be any local producers in your area that would sell grassfed hamburger at a discounted rate to the college? I believe that near my sister’s home in Vermont, the local public school has been serving local hamburger instead of industrial meat, and that they were given a pretty fair price.

  3. I’m an alum and not on campus to offer direct support, but I think this is a meaningful shift and would be consistent with the responsible and globally conscious williams college I know! #divestbeef

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