“What was Meatless Monday? Why was it such a big deal?”

When a fellow student asked me this, I realized that first years and sophomores never experienced the drama of Meatless Monday, one of the most heated student conflicts I’ve seen at Bowdoin in my time here.

What happened on campus in February of 2011 deserves to be revisited.

Surprisingly, Bowdoin Dining Services came up with the idea, and intended Meatless Monday to be an educational experience. Student groups, including Bowdoin Democrats and the Evergreens agreed to run an informational table, answering questions throughout the meal.

Arguments in favor of Meatless Monday cited the health, societal, and environmental problems that could be solved with lower meat consumption. Meat, especially beef, has a high carbon footprint.

An acre of corn feeds a cow that feeds a handful of people, whereas that same acre of corn could feed hundreds of people. Groups in favor of the meal suggested that the global hunger crisis could be ameliorated if Americans ate less meat. They also talked about personal health benefits of substituting meat for more grains and vegetables.

Other students considered Meatless Monday an assault on choice. Some complained that their “right to eat meat” had been taken away. 
Still others claimed that they needed a higher protein intake than the vegetarian food provided. They didn’t just complain, they actively protested.

People strolled into Thorne carrying buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. A group of students grilled burgers just outside the entrance to Coles Tower. Two seniors went so far as to set up an “Eat Meat to Save Animals” cheeseburger fundraiser for the Coastal Humane Society. They gave McDonald’s cheeseburgers to anyone who pledged to donate to the animal shelter. 
Fox News featured these two students in a special episode of “Fox & Friends,” where they complained on television about Bowdoin’s supposed assault on choice.

All of this over one single meal. The protesters missed the point. Meatless Monday, far from a forceful conversion of all students to vegetarianism, was simply a day to consider eating less meat in a very general sense.

What is it about food that inspires so much fervor in Bowdoin students? With our dining services consistently ranking first or second in the nation, we have little to complain about. Maybe it’s because food is a common denominator on campus:  everyone eats food, food unites us. I’ve heard some students argue that we are just too busy to care about anything less immediate than our food. Are we so overcommitted that the only thing we have time to debate is what we eat?

This conflict was noteworthy because it was unusual. Many students complain about the apparent apathy of Bowdoin students, but that was nowhere to be seen on Meatless Monday. The event spurred an aggressive assertion of students’ right to attack an idea. That strong of an ideological clash rarely rises to the surface at this school.

I truly admire the students involved in the controversy for the fact that they created just that: a controversy. Conflict inspires new thought, debate fosters change. But why fight over this?

Of all the pressing issues in today’s world to get up-in-arms about, Meatless Monday seems a strange choice. In an op-ed in the Orient after the fact, Judah Isseroff ’13 wrote, “Why a single meal could have stirred Bowdoin students so deeply confounds me…I can only hope that my friends and colleagues will treat issues of actual import with at least the same degree of passion and energy.”

As I sit at this table in Moulton, I notice a table tent with a handmade look to it. In colorful cursive writing, it informs me that feeding the world would require two and a half planet Earths to produce enough food, if everyone ate like Americans. 

This message is food for thought. Its appearance also alludes to an almost-forgotten event, a rare and powerful occurrence: a true controversy among students at Bowdoin College.