The number of Harvard undergraduates that care about the sustainability of their food has gone down according to a recent Harvard University Dinging Services (HUDS) survey. Almost 20 percent of students listed that the sustainability of their food was “not important” in the spring survey, the lowest percentage of the past six recorded years.

HUDS typically serves two meat entrees at every meal, though they have implemented “less meat” Mondays during which only one meat entrée is served. However, the volume of meat that students consume on Mondays remains the samesays HUDS director for marketing and communications Crista Martin.

“At the end of the day our job is to feed you in the way that you want to be fed,” says Martin. The dining staff at Harvard monitor everything that students eat, tracking the number of portions consumed of every option. It is part of their waste management program, but it also provides data on student preferences.

Where people go, we will follow. There needs to be a consensus in the community. It will mean a change.

Some students are very vocal about prioritizing sustainable and ethical food, but a large portion prioritizes other demands. Martin explains that HUDS makes an effort to be as sustainable as possible while still answering student desires.

Animals in New England are typically not raised for consumption, but rather for dairy or egg production. HUDS gets the majority of its dairy products from within a 250 mile radius, but the beef, chicken or pork comes from typical meat purveyors in the Midwest. While Dining Services might prefer to be able to serve free-range, grass-fed beef or cage-free chickens, they simply are unable to do that, Martin says.

Many students do not appear to realize the trade-off between their tastes and sustainability. Martin discusses the contradictory demand: “I want you to do the right thing but I still want bananas.” Students cannot demand local, organic, sustainable food and simultaneously demand food that cannot be produced sustainably year-round.

The Food Literacy Project is an attempt to educate students on the food that they eat. It’s a way of “teaching you why you can’t have strawberries in January,” Martin says. But if students still demand certain foods in off-seasons, then HUDS must “make the best possible choices for everyone,” which often amounts to “a community juggling act.”

As of this past fall, a survey of 2,640 undergraduates showed that only six percent of the Harvard community is composed of vegetarians, with 71% identifying as omnivores and 14% eating some, but not all, meat. Four percent of students are pescetarians and one percent identified as vegans.

For every meal, HUDS must provide about 700 pounds of each vegetable and 1000 pounds of each protein. While they obtain what they can locally and within the price range that student board rates allow, their priority is to serve students what they want. Ten different people read every student feedback card, and Martin reads every single one. She explains that students want options and they have a wide variety of preferences: making the salad bar completely organic, for example, would drastically reduce their choices.

If we care about the sustainability of our food, we need to be educated on what our sustainable options are. If we are not satisfied with the way that meat today is raised, if we have concerns about the ethics or the environmental sustainability of animal farming, then we have an obligation as consumers to decide if the implications of eating meat override our taste for meat. Knowing that the meat in our dining halls cannot feasibly be locally and sustainably sourced, we are left only with our consumer power.

What we cannot do is demand meat options while also demanding that our food is sustainable. Our options are the product of our choices. Crista Martin says, “Where people go, we will follow. There needs to be a consensus in the community. It will mean a change."