Cage-Free At Last

The student-led initiative for cage-free eggs is an example for us all

After October 31, Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) will serve only cage free eggs, a long-overdue change we celebrate for its environmental benefits and that came in the wake of a highly effective campaign spearheaded entirely by students. Although the movement toward cage-free eggs began with just a small group, it was ultimately able to enact a significant change to HUDS' policies because its organizers advocated effectively and intelligently, and its remarkable success should be a sign for other activists on campus that success is possible for their causes.

We hardly need to say that cage-free eggs are good for  hens, people, and the environment. After all, the typical method of housing egg-laying hens is in stacked battery cages, each smaller than a piece of paper, which leave the hens no room to move or carry out their typical behaviors. Such confinement often leads hens to harm themselves and others out of frustration. Respiratory diseases from dust, osteoporosis from lack of exercise, and death from being trapped in the cage's wires are common. But such conditions also harm humans, not just hens. Salmonella is far more common in eggs laid by hens in such cages. Waste from hens falls down on those below, and the resulting concentrated manure is frequently disposed of into nearby water supplies, with severe environmental effects. Ensuring that the 1.8 million eggs that HUDS purchases each year are not the result of this system is undoubtedly a good thing.

Just as important, this particular movement provides a blueprint for success to other student movements. It made its goals explicit and specific: a switch to 100 percent cage-free eggs, instead of HUDS' previous policy of using about 19 percent cage-free eggs, with the rest coming from traditional cruel, battery cage farms. This made it clear how the university could acquiesce to student's demands, and gave a clear rallying point for supporters. To support this goal, the campaign’s organizers gathered over 5,000 student and faculty signatures on a petition, gained the support of over a dozen student organizations and the Undergraduate Council, convinced more then twenty alumni to withhold donations until a switch to cage-free eggs was made, and discussed the campaign with President Faust at her semesterly office hour. This spurred outside news coverage and ultimately convinced HUDS to bow to the pressure and use only cage-free eggs.

The necessity of reaching a large number of people through a good PR campaign and targeting the alumni and administration as well as students can be seen through comparison of this campaign with the previous one. In 2007, when the school used no cage-free eggs at all, a similar initiative was launched, but it was less successful at garnering student and alumni support, and thus had comparatively less effect.

While activism at Harvard may be difficult, results are nevertheless achievable. What is more, they are greater than they would be otherwise because of Harvard's position as a well-known, influential university. For better or for worse, Harvard is often seen as a model for other universities, and other administrators often look to Cambridge for inspiration. This ripple effect makes activism at Harvard especially significant. In that sense, while we are proud that the cage-free movement has affirmed that such activism is possible at Harvard, we hope other universities and communities across the country will follow suit.


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