Ethical Eating on a Catholic Campus: Some thoughts from a student of environmental studies
by Grace Mican
Bellarmine University is a private, Catholic-affiliated institution situated in Louisville, Kentucky, that hosts a rapidly growing Environmental Studies program, of which I am a student. Recently, a petition against Bellarmine’s relationship with Sodexo – the company supplying the majority of food served to students on campus – caught my eye when it began circulating on social media. The petition calls for Bellarmine to stop allowing eggs being derived from chickens raised in battery cage farms to be served in their dining facilities on campus. Battery cage farms are considered such a cruel and unsustainable practice that they are illegal in the European Union and several states in the U.S. Other large companies, including fast-food-giant Burger King, have made commitments to phase out the practice of purchasing eggs from these types of farms.) How can the goal of the School of Environmental Studies to form a more ecologically sustainable society be met when Bellarmine itself is indirectly supporting one of the most environmentally destructive practices of modern society?
In addition to its environmental studies program, Bellarmine should have an even deeper commitment to higher food-sourcing standards because of our affiliation with the works and teachings of Thomas Merton, who donated many of his written works to the university. These works focus on the search for truth, religious inquiry, the nature of humanity, the value of cross-cultural and interfaith awareness, as well as advocacy for peace, social justice, and sustainability. Thomas Merton spoke out against the practice of factory farming and joined in the protest against it. In Merton’s Statement on Factory Farming, he calls it a “violent and unnatural force upon the living organisms of animals and birds in order to increase production and profits.” He goes on to say that factory farming doesn’t have “any really justifiable purpose except to increase the quantity of production at the expense of quality: if that can be called a justifiable purpose,” and “The mistreatment of animals in ‘intensive husbandry’ is the part of this larger picture of insensitivity to genuine values and indeed to humanity and to life itself – a picture which more and more comes to display the ugly lineaments of what can only be called by its right name: barbarism.”
When talking to Steve Santo, the general manager of Sodexo and the man in charge of ordering food for Bellarmine, it became apparent that cost and volume are the biggest factors in how dining services manages food sourcing. Santo is active in moving towards sustainable eating, but there’s a limit when you’re feeding 1,000 sometimes-picky students a day. Santo has been able to make more changes when it comes to produce, but meat, and its sustainable, ethical production, isn’t really brought into the discussion in terms of progress that the university is making. Factory farmed meat is the cheapest kind of meat, and students expect to have pepperoni pizza and hamburgers hot off the grill seven days a week. In the United States, 99.9% of chickens, 97% of laying hens, 99% of turkeys, 95% of pigs, and 78% of cattle live and die within the factory farm system.
But it’s not all about the money for some. Cindy Kiefer is a junior at Bellarmine University and is one of the creators of the newly formed Food Advocacy Club. Her dedication to the issue of food production and consumption started when she took classes both in high school and college that focused on the topics. Like my own passion for the issue, she was sparked by independent research into the behind the scenes of what we are eating. In fact, her interest has developed so much that she is going to be centering her honors senior thesis around the idea of which argument—health, animal welfare, or environmental impact—is most convincing for people to reduce or eliminate meat consumption.
The Food Advocacy Club has started something small but spectacular in conjunction with Steve Santo—the first Monday of every month, the University Dining Hall serves lunch without any meat. You would think that wouldn’t be an issue… one meal a month without meat isn’t a lot to ask, but it makes an incredible impact on the environment. According to the Meatless Monday team, because an estimated 1/5 of emitted greenhouse gases come from the meat industry, and if every family of four cut out one steak a day a week for a year, their carbon emission reductions would be about the equivalent of taking their car off the road for three months. Eating less meat helps to conserve water, too, as it takes an estimated 1,800 to 2,500 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef. In addition, about forty calories of fossil fuel energy go into every calorie of feedlot beef. When compared to the 2.2 calories of fossil fuel energy needed to produce one calorie of plant-based protein, the inefficiency of meat production becomes pronounced.
Not only are we eating an amount of meat that harms and exploits the environment, we are consuming enough animal protein to damage our own health. The average American eats 8 ounces of meat per day, which is 45% more protein than the USDA recommends. By going meatless one day a week, you can reduce the risk of chronic, preventable diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. Diets lower in red and processed meats but higher in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes naturally protect against these diseases. (If you are interested in learning more about where your food is coming from and the meat industry of the United States, I encourage you to check out the eye-opening and chilling book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.)
Unfortunately, the backlash against Meatless Monday at Bellarmine has been somewhat strident. “We don’t make you eat meat, so don’t make us eat vegetables,” commented one student when asked for feedback about the new practice. Cindy thinks that one reason the change has been resisted so greatly is because of the culture of the student body here at Bellarmine, and I would have to agree. As I mentioned, Bellarmine University is a private school with a Catholic affiliation. The tuition at Bellarmine for the 2015-2016 school year is $37,650. I hate to make such a gross generalization, but these characteristics lend to the compilation of a more conservative student body with perhaps a more economically comfortable upbringing. One of the qualities of a more conservative perspective is a resistance to change.
Thomas Merton makes an argument that this quality of what he sees as “destructive and irrational behavior” is a general phenomenon of the technological man. I have to wonder if more students on campus knew how their meat was being produced—all of the negative environmental impacts, the suffering of the animals, and the health implications for those eating it, if our cafeteria would be meatless every day.
While Bellarmine still sources foods through companies that rely on factory farming for a cheap abundance of meat, Steve Santo has taken steps to move towards more local food sourcing. It is important to him that a significant portion of Bellarmine’s food supply is sourced locally, which he defines as coming from within the state of Kentucky and Southern Indiana, ideally within a 50 mile radius, but the issue becomes—how do you find a local supplier that can bring you 5,000 pounds of tomatoes a year?
One issue with tapping into the local food supply is that school isn’t in session when local produce is the most abundant, and neither the school nor its suppliers have the ability or the desire to devote freezer space to preserving local goods until they are needed. So instead, we eat mediocre tomatoes year round, and mealy watermelon in February because we students at Bellarmine expect consistency. I asked Steve Santo if seasonal eating would be a possibility at this school, to which he responded that as much as it is the ideal, it’s probably an unattainable goal in the near future—kids are fickle and are picky eaters. Bellarmine University does have a small garden across the street from the main campus, which helps to supplement the dining hall supply. The garden mainly grows green beans, tomatoes, and squash, which are sold to Steve Santo to help feed students on campus. The garden planners, specifically Dr. Robert Kingsolver, the dean of the Environmental College at Bellarmine, tries to maximize its positive effects by growing crops with later harvests, when there will be more students on campus to enjoy them. (If you are interested in learning more about local eating, Barbara Kingsolver provides an outline of her family’s transition to solely local eating and farming in what became a life-changing book for me, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.)
While Bellarmine’s awareness to issues concerning food, health, ethics, and the environment is increasing, there is still a long way to go before we are truly in line with the nature-affirming values of Thomas Merton and the mission of the environmental school, both of which seem to require a sustained and intentional movement away from factory farmed food and the waste, cruelty, and exploitation it represents. An excellent next step will be the success of the petition against sourcing eggs from battery cage farms. The more people who express that they aren’t satisfied with the current food supply and sourcing practices, the bigger the changes that can be made at the school and throughout the nation. I have faith that with some patience, we can turn every Monday into Meatless Monday. I have hope that as students become more educated about the food on their plate, we will be able to make a significant difference not only in terms of human health and the health of the environment, but for a fuller adoption of ethics that acknowledge the importance of the natural world.
 "Mission, Vision, and Values:" Bellarmine School of Environmental Studies. http://www.bellarmine.edu/green/missionstatement/
 Merton, Thomas. “A Statement on Factory Farming.” Page 12.
 Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. Page 109.
 Meatless Monday Informational Pamphlet: Bellarmine University
 Merton, Thomas. “A Statement on Factory Farming.” Page 12.
 Personal Interview with Steve Santo.