The Cerealization of Harvard

In 1876, a typical breakfast menu at Harvard included, among other things, pork chops, fricasseed chicken, cold ham and corn beef. Consumption patterns have changed somewhat since then, but--in a world where 10,000 people die of starvation every week--it seems that Harvard and Radcliffe students still consume more than their fair share of meat. Beef now appears on the menu in some form at least once a day, and students can help themselves to as much as they can eat.

The imbalance in the distribution of the world's food supplies is obvious to many students, but the sheer enormity of the problem makes any individual effort to correct that imbalance seem ridiculous. It's hard to see how denying oneself seconds on roast beef will make much difference to the starving masses in Asia, Africa and Latin America. But observers of the world food situation are saying that it is just such an individual change--on a mass scale--that is necessary if worldwide famine is to be averted.

One of these observers is Jean Mayer, professor of Nutrition, who proposed two weeks ago that Harvard institute as many as two meatless days a week. Under Mayer's plan, meat would be replaced by fish on one of these days and by a vegetarian dish on the other.

"What I'm basically concerned with is making more grain available," Mayer says. "You feed 20 calories worth of grain to a steer to get five calories back in the form of meat. In America, we use over 2000 pounds of cereal per person per year, only 150 of which are consumed as cereal--the rest is converted into animal products. In China, they use 400 pounds of cereal per person, 350 of which are consumed as cereal. This means that the average American consumes over five times as much cereal as the average Chinese--and to no great good, either for our health or for our resources."

Mayer's original proposal included a provision for channeling the savings from meatless days into a program for world food relief. But the Food Services staff is skeptical about the amount of money that would be saved, citing the rising cost of fish and meat substitutes. "We would still have to provide a menu acceptable to our customers, the students," says Benjamin H. Walcott '63, assistant to the director of the Food Services. "And it might cost more to keep customer satisfaction up."

Mayer answers that the Food Services would inevitably save some money by cutting down on meat, but he adds that the problem is not money. "The real problem is bringing about a change in the patterns of consumption," he says. "That is the only way large amounts of grain can be freed and the only way we can knock down the amount of fat and cholesterol in the American diet."

But Mayer emphasizes that the impetus for such a change in consumption patterns at Harvard must come from students themselves, noting that "no college administrator in 1974 would be so demented as to impose a change in diet." President Bok, who has asked his staff to research the possibility of instituting meatless days, has said that "you cannot impose that kind of morality" on students.

The problem is to determine just what the consensus of student opinion is on the issue--and for many students, food is a very touchy subject. Jeffrey W. White '75, a member of Harvard Ecology Action, says he hopes to get the Committee on Housing and Undergraduate Life to approve an experimental period of meatless days, but adds that "no action should be taken unless there is a definite movement of student opinion." White and other members of Ecology Action distributed a questionnaire in some House dining halls last week and found that over half of the approximately 600 students polled favored some version of a meatless-days plan. But White cautions that the sample is selective and "can easily be dismissed as biased." He plans to do a more scientific survey of student opinion in collaboration with members of a Freshman Seminar taught by William G. Cochran, professor of Statistics.

"The plan shouldn't be implemented without a student referendum," says Steuart H. Thomsen '76, a member of the CHUL subcommittee on Food Services. "The student input should not just be a vote of CHUL. This is a clear-cut issue that students can easily understand." Thomsen says the Food Services subcommittee will discuss the proposal before Christmas, but it will probably not come before the full committee until January.

Proponents of the meatless-days plan emphasize the importance of educating students about nutrition. Mayer cautions against rushing into anything, saying that "it is much more important for people to understand why they should not eat meat." And Frank J. Weissbecker, director of the Food Services, points out that if the plan is simply imposed on students who have no real understanding of the purposes behind it, "it'll be too bad if they just run off to McDonald's and swell that 15-billion figure."

Eleanor Shore, assistant to President Bok for health-related matters, is conducting a study of nutrition education in the University and is trying to assess the level of student interest in the subject.

"It would be more consistent with the policies of this university to make various options available and to improve the level of education, rather than mandating a change to meatless days," she says. "Students here will one day be in the food industry, on boards of health, and they'll be heads of families. They should be educated consumers." Shore sees a growing interest in nutrition among students and is considering a number of ways to spread that interest even further--including showing educational videotapes on the subject to students in the University Health Services waiting room.

But some people, such as Jeffrey White, feel that students are not the only ones who need education. "The question is, can the Food Services create vegetarian menus without guidance?" he says. "They think you need eggs and cheese--if they substitute eggs, people will be outraged because of the problem of cardiovascular disease. The trick is to convince them they'll have to think in terms of other kinds of dishes."

The most well-known vegetarian alternative is soybeans--an alternative that the Food Services staff shies away from because of adverse student reaction in the past. The maximum proportion of soybeans in any Food Services recipe has been decreased from 20 percent to ten percent. Although White attributes the reluctance to use soybeans in part to student complaints, he sees it primarily as stemming from a "cultural bias in favor of a traditional way of cooking."

"Soybeans are great for feeding cows, but they aren't really where it's at," says White, who is a vegetarian himself. "They're hard to cook with. Lentils, chick peas, black-eyed peas--those are the kinds of meals I'd like the Food Services to consider."

The question is how many other students would like the Food Services to consider those kinds of meals. White concedes that he is not "100 per cent satisfied" with his diet and that it was not easy to "abandon 20 years of a certain way of eating." But, he adds, "You have to wean yourself away from the idea of a meat dish, a vegetable dish and a starch dish at every meal."

Both White and Mayer were encouraged by the response to last Thursday's fast--in which 2200 students participated--and see it as an indication that students are concerned about the world food situation. But there is a difference between passing up one meal and making a fundamental change in eating habits, and it is not yet clear how far students are willing to go. Even if they are ready to take the step to meatless days, the plan is not an automatic solution to the food crisis. There remain the enormous problems of transporting grain from rich countries to poor countries and of slowing the rate of world population growth, which threatens to outstrip the available food supply.

But Mayer says that these problems are not insurmountable, and he is optimistic about what his proposal can achieve. "With meatless days, we will be accomplishing a number of things," he says. "We will be making a real contribution to relieving the pressure on our food supply; we will be keeping people from starving, until they can develop agricultural techniques and methods of population control; we will be improving our health; and we will be improving the state of our pocketbook. Also, we will just be paying attention to people who have problems that are much greater than any that we could possibly have."