Where's the beef? Meatless Monday at Bowdoin College attracts national attention

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BRUNSWICK — The path leading to Bowdoin College’s Thorne Dining hall is uncrowded this week, with most students away on spring break.

But on Feb. 21, students selling cheeseburgers staked out the sidewalk in protest of “Meatless Monday,” a one-time dinner where neither campus dining hall served meat. 

Just down the path, more students gathered beside a dorm for a barbecue. Still others showed their opposition to the meatless meal on Facebook and in the campus newspaper, The Bowdoin Orient, where other students voiced their support of the event.

The idea behind Meatless Monday, which is a national movement started at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, is to educate people about the effect of eating meat on human health and the environment. Schools and universities around the country have adopted Meatless Mondays, including the entire Baltimore public school system.

So the organizers of Bowdoin’s event were surprised when the college’s first Meatless Monday was picked up by the national news media.

“Bowdoin College students revolt against ‘Meatless Monday’; there has to be a better way than forced vegetarianism,” tweeted food writer Mark Bittman of The New York Times on March 1.

The Huffington Post, Fox News, and Inside Higher Ed also reported on the meatless meal.

At least one national group is applauding the college’s effort. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals  gave the Bowdoin dining services a “compassionate campus” award for its meat-free dinner.

How did a one-time, meatless meal attract so much attention, both within and outside the Bowdoin community?

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” said Katy Shaw, a senior who helped organize the event. “Food is a really personal choice for people. Before you’ve tried (not eating meat), I think there’s some sort of emotional response that had to do with fear.”

Bowdoin senior Cameron Weller attributed the strong reaction to the fact that both dining halls that night served vegetarian meals, leaving students who craved meat no choice except to eat off-campus or at the school’s pub, which featured a bacon cheeseburger.

The decision to serve a meatless dinner at both dining halls was a practical one, Shaw said. “We didn’t know how students would react to the events, and if we only had a meatless meal at one dining hall, the other would have seen twice as many people.”

Weller said students who were upset felt like “this is being inflicted on us instead of us choosing it.”

The editors of The Bowdoin Orient agreed.

In a Feb. 18 editorial they said “Students should be able to eat whatever they choose, and no student group – regardless of political or religious persuasion – should dictate our dietary choices. … With Meatless Monday, students who prefer to have meat in their diet are compelled to submit to an agenda with which they may not agree.”

While some students protested because of the lack of choice, senior Steve Robinson argued that the event was political.

In an Orient opinion piece titled “Meatless Monday undemocratically eliminates choice,” he argued that “political motives lie behind the War on Meat, and it has been promoted by a political group (guess which one). … The bourgeoisie liberals seem to know what is best for society, the planet and you.”

But Shaw, who is also a leader of the Bowdoin Democrats, denied that the event was political. She said Meatless Monday was sponsored by 13 student groups and eight sports teams.

Weller said writing off Meatless Monday as a liberal affair misses the point.

“The bigger picture is that all of us should care about our environment, our health,” she said. “We should all know where our food comes from.”

Shaw said that before planning another Meatless Monday, the Bowdoin Student Government is surveying students to find out how the event could be repeated with less conflict.

Some of the suggestions include a beef-less meal where other types of meat will be provided, or only having one dining hall go meatless. But eliminating meat from both dining halls, even for one meal, is something Shaw said probably won’t happen again.

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or eguerin@theforecaster.net