Food, Revised?

The Harvard community is waking up to the benefits of plants. As the science increasingly reveals the harm caused by meat and dairy to both the planet and personal health, many are choosing more vegetarian and vegan foods.

As factory farming and free-range operations alike struggle to keep pace with rising demand for meat, dairy, and eggs, livestock have become some of the biggest global contributors to both climate change and water scarcity.  This demand also takes its toll on billions of farm animals a year, animals who have emotionally rich and complex lives and can think, feel, and relate with one another far more than we have ever previously thought possible. Those who, for ethical and environmental reasons, decide to eat more vegan foods also discover a bounty of new tastes as well as healthier, more disease-free lives.

Now that I’m a graduate student at Harvard, I’m proud to be part of an institution that, at its best, cuts through the misinformation to provide reliable information on healthy and sustainable eating. For years, the Harvard School of Public Health, through its Nutrition Source website has warned against the over-consumption of milk. Almost a decade ago, I used this website to learn that I could eat leafy greens or take supplements for my calcium if I wanted to avoid milk’s saturated fat, cholesterol, lactose, and elevated risks of some cancers. Furthermore, the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study has rigorously demonstrated the correlation between consumption of red meat and cholesterol and heart disease by following thousands of subjects’ eating habits over multiple decades.

Today, Harvard is establishing its reputation as a testing ground for healthier, more ethical and sustainable diets. Our community garden and farmers’ market invite us to take a closer look at how our food is produced while introducing us to fresher and better tasting produce. Our renowned “Science and Cooking” classes and lecture series bring innovation to bear on improving flavors and refining our palettes. Our community is pushing the boundaries of flavor, health, longevity, and environmental stewardship.

But some of the strongest evidence of Harvard’s evolving awareness of our food lies in the daily eating habits of our staff, students, and faculty. The dining halls are seeing a warm response to new soymilk dispensers, cage-free eggs, and the meatless alternatives of “less-meat Mondays.” Additionally, on the north end of campus where I study and work, seminars and social events have seen an influx of meat-free and dairy-free options. Vegetarian-friendly burritos, Mideastern mezzes, smoothies and more provide new and welcome alternatives to the usual fare of pizzas and burgers. The culinary changes on our campus mirror those in the greater Boston area, which has seen an explosion of new vegetarian and vegan restaurants in just the past couple of years.

In light of our University’s push for less meat and dairy, I feel hopeful that we can make further changes that will reduce our harm to the environment and animals and will provide students with tastier and healthier options. Some of these changes would require minimal effort for a huge payoff. Asking Harvard University Dining Services to cook vegetables in heart-healthy plant oils instead of artery-clogging butter would be simple and painless. Now that students are eating less meat, we can make further steps to try cutting back on dairy and introducing more rich and delicious vegan entrees, from creamy cashew-based alfredo sauces to soft fruit pancakes with smoky strips of tempeh “bacon” at breakfast to warm and wholesome apple crisp with spiced whole-grain topping for dessert. Options such as these would be enthusiastically received by students no matter what their dietary habits are.

Outside of the dining halls, students and staff alike could begin discovering new alternatives to pre-packaged microwave dinners and boxed cookies. Decadent vegan desserts like pumpkin blondies with dark chocolate chips are easy to bake and make for novel and guilt-free treats at weekend parties. Additionally, just as administrators who organize seminars among grad students have helped provide ample vegan food at events, resident tutors would also be happy to oblige students who ask for more vegan options at study breaks. Sweet potato chips and bean dips, for instance, could give studious midterm-crammers a brain boost instead of slowing them down with saturated fat, sodium, or blood sugar spikes.

The horrors of the meat and dairy industry can be very daunting for those who choose to question where their food comes from. Any interested readers can simply do an internet search for PETA’s “meet your meat” or Mercy for Animals’ dairy farm investigation to see how animals raised for food regularly endure cruel conditions. These videos are as grim as they are factual. However, I believe there’s another much more positive and inviting trend in awareness that’s gaining momentum on our University’s grounds. More and more, our community is realizing that when we cut back on meat and dairy, we gain fair more than we lose. With a little effort and some healthy enthusiasm for exploring new and delicious vegan foods, members of the Harvard community can continue to make choices that avoid cruelty, reduce their impact on the environment, and feel great about making nutritious changes to their diets.

Matthew N. Hayek is a graduate student in Environmental Science and Engineering at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

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