A move by University of Iowa students to implement Meatless Mondays in campus dining halls is met by industry condemnation, and that may be exactly the wrong approach to take.
Predictably, an initiative led by a group of college students to implement Meatless Mondays on their campus has led to outrage among industry officials in Iowa.
At issue is a move by members of student government at the University of Iowa to institute Meatless Mondays as part of the institution’s “Climate for Change” theme semester.
That university-wide program began earlier in February, according to The Gazette newspaper, which publishes an edition in Iowa City, where UI’s main campus is located. As part of the program, student government representatives are distributing fliers promoting the meatless options available in campus dining halls.
Last week, representatives from Iowa’s meat and livestock industry complained to the Iowa Board of Regents over the student initiative, even as university officials explained that existing student menus aren’t being changed.
“Meat continues to be served on Monday and every day at the university,” said UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck in an email to Darcy Maulsby, described by The Gazette as “a farmer, marketer, entrepreneur, and self-proclaimed foodie,” and one of the women who spoke in opposition to the initiative during the Regents’ meeting last week.
“This student-led initiative did not alter the menu items available through UI Housing & Dining,” Beck stated. “The menu items highlighted were simply part of the standard rotation available to students.”
Despite Beck’s assurances, concerns were heightened when The Daily Iowan, the student newspaper, wrote that students might notice “something different at the dining halls.” The newspaper reported that UI’s student government was partnering with the university’s Office of Sustainability in to “provide meat-free options for students.”
On social media, someone tweeted about being embarrassed to be an Iowan “for the first time that I can ever remember,” writing that “The decision by the University of Iowa to participate in the Meatless Monday movement seems as tasteless as the kale sandwich they will be eating in the mess hall.”
That’s a clever line, but inaccurate.
At the University of Iowa, according to UI’s website, “There are three all-you-care-to-eat dining centers, called market places, located in Burge, Catlett and Hillcrest Residence Halls.” Based on what’s posted online, the menus seem pretty traditional to me. Here’s the current fare, for example:
- Breakfast: Scrambled eggs; bacon potato casserole; pepper chicken sausage; buttermilk pancakes; assorted cereals, fruit and waffle bar.
- Lunch: Charbroiled hamburgers; grilled cheese sandwich; battered crispy green beans; sweet potato crinkle fries.
- Dinner: Taco/burrito bowls; beef barbacoa; chicken and beef tacos; fried chicken cheese crispitos.
Not sure what Chicken Cheese Crispitos are, but I know that overall, contemporary college students are eating way better than I did back on campus in the day.
But the problem with this story isn’t the lack of meat and poultry items on dining hall menus, it’s the knee-jerk reaction of the members and leaders of the livestock and meat industries in condemning Meatless Mondays.
Of course, the urge to fight back is understandable. When someone denigrates your profession, you take it personally.
On the issue of Meatless Mondays and vegetarian diets in general, however, I remember the questions posed by the founder of the marketing firm of which I was a partner for several years. When reviewing the positioning or messaging we were developing on behalf of a client, he would always ask: “Who are you trying to reach?” and “What are you trying to accomplish?”
To answer the first question, it’s imperative to understand that whether you’re selling professional services, marketing luxury merchandise or convincing people to eat (or eschew) meat, a truism called the 20/60/20 rule, is almost always in play.
It refers to the reality that 20% of any broadly defined population is usually adamant on a policy, position or product on both ends of the spectrum. In other words, even with college students, 20% of students are likely to be convinced people should never eat meat, while 20% are meat lovers who will never be convinced to wolf down a kale sandwich.
Those percentages might fluctuate up or down on a given issue, but that 20/60/20 breakdown is remarkably predictive. You ignore the 20% at either end and focus on the folks in the middle.
That’s because that approximately half of any large group, although they may lean one way or the other, aren’t locked into their beliefs or preferences on a given issue, or in regard to a specific person or product. In marketing, you slice and dice that 50% to 60% to reach specific subsets with specific messaging, but the bottom line is this: You don’t convince someone to buy your product — or your positioning — by bashing the opposition.
Despite a lot of partisan noise to the contrary, that approach doesn’t even work consistently in politics.
With animal agriculture and meat-eating, the industry would be better suited to reach out to the subset of that 50% to 60% percent who aren’t dead-set in their views and start selling an alternative understanding of the role of livestock, not only in food production but in maintaining ecosystems, as well.
Bashing meatless meals won’t convince committed vegetarians to start opting for the Beef Barbacoa, nor is it likely to change hearts and minds among many other young people predisposed to consider Big Ag and Big Meat as corporate bad boys pedaling unhealthy products that are driving the existential crisis of climate change.
Instead, industry should try to reach more people in the middle with a positive message, perhaps by getting them to recognize that bovines have a 10,000-year track record as participants, not culprits, in maintaining the balance of Nature.
Meanwhile, let the students and the diehard veggies have their Meatless Mondays.
The industry can claim the other six days of the week. □
The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.