While it is not rare to hear college students moan that college food simply is not their mother’s cooking, meat can be a particularly divisive issue. People come from a wide variety of dietary backgrounds; the Armenian kebob-lovers find themselves in the same dining hall as the San Franciscan vegans. The dining halls at Harvard recently began trying to cut down on the amount of meat they served, but there seemed to be a backlash from students who demanded meat options for lunch and dinner. I wondered if this was a true reflection of student desires.

I was interested in finding out what kind of meat-eating patterns my peers have and why they make these choices. I gathered a small sample of students from Leverett House, and among them there was a wide array of dietary identities, from pescetarians and vegetarians to those that ate meat at “most meals.”

Among the meat-eaters beef, chicken, fish and seafood were the most popular types primarily consumed. Leverett student Stephen Morrison attested that he “tend(s) to eat more meat at college” and that the meat in dining halls “seems to be quite clean and well-prepared.”

But a good number of respondents claimed that they eat more meat at home than at college, and usually this was due to the meat-eating practices in their homes. Braden Thue explained that in his home state of South Dakota there is “a general incomprehension as to why anyone would want to be vegetarian.” Another student explained that the Chinese food her parents cook at home is simply “pretty meat-heavy.”

I found it interesting that a number of Harvard students seemed to eat less meat at college when they presumably have more choice over their diets here than at home. I wondered whether this was more due to differences in the meat or to differences in culture. One student said that she only ate meat at home because she knew it was “organic and sustainably sourced.” She expressed concern that the meat at Harvard was not organic or sourced from ethically raised animals, despite Harvard University Dining Services allocating 30% of their budget last year to locally grown or organic food. 

Encouraging awareness over sustainable choices requires both education about the costs and benefits and as well as a greater availability of options. 

Another interesting pattern was that every student who chose not to eat meat did so for environmental reasons, though some did additionally cite health reasons or ethical reasons. But for meat-eaters, the only information that they claimed would cause them to stop eating meat were health reasons—hormones, chemicals, or unsafe preparation. Not one cited environmental information as a factor that would compel them to reduce their meat consumption. This implies that either students do not know enough about the environmental impact of meat consumption or that these reasons are not as compelling as personal health risks.

There are many human habits that we are aware have damaging effects on the climate and yet we continue to do them anyway. For example, everyone who drives a car is certainly aware that cars contribute heavily to greenhouse gas emissions. It may seem that some lifestyle choices are easier to shift away from, like diet as opposed to transportation, but in reality both require infrastructural changes. One student complained that “the vegetarian options in the dining hall are slim to none most days and there are never very many varied vegetable options.” Oftentimes it’s even more difficult to find vegetarian options on restaurant menus.

It’s promising that a number of students are concerned about eating sustainably. Encouraging awareness over sustainable choices requires both education about the costs and benefits and as well as a greater availability of options.