Despite the fact that students drove implementation of the program, Meatless Mondays was less than successful at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. The dining team at this Wisconsin university had to re-evaluate the program to take a more educational approach. According to the campus paper, Meatless Mondays began at the campus’s all-you-care-to-eat facility, Blackhawk Commons, in the fall of 2012. Since then, when Meatless Monday rolled around, students seemed to avoid the Commons and instead purchased meals at one of the university’s eight other dining locations—negatively impacting the bottom line at Blackhawk.
“It was fairly successful the first year,” explains Marty Strand, assistant director for dining operations at UW Oshkosh. “But we did see some strong resistance to [it, and] the longer it went on the more students were voting with their feet. For example, we used to serve approximately 1,600 students for lunch and it dropped down to about 800.”
The traffic loss was coupled with increasing costs. Strand says some meat substitutes were more expensive and, as students moved to other dining locations, labor became an issue.
“The cheapest place for us to feed our students is in Blackhawk Commons just because we’ve already got the labor there. If they feed 800 people or if they feed 1,600 people, we still have to open the dishroom, we still have to open the building … all those fixed costs are still there. And if [the students] don’t show up here they go elsewhere. [Then] we’ve got to overstaff those other places that are starting to get congested with students and our expenses [go] way up. So the problem there is, how are we going to make that back? Cut programs, cut hours, cut service, cut something? Something is going to have to change, and we don’t want to do that to deteriorate our dining program, so we want to get them back in [Blackhawk Commons] and we didn’t feel we were making a big enough difference.”
After working with the student food committee, Strand realized the meatless program had an image problem. “They missed the whole point. Students weren’t getting why it is important to eat meatless. And we felt that OK, Meatless Mondays started out good, it’s a good program to kick things off, but now we need to evolve that to something else.”
The department took advantage of a new university requirement to help bridge the gap of understanding. Instead of touting Meatless Mondays, dining operations began taking a more holistic approach, integrating education about the benefits of reducing meat consumption alongside regular meal offerings throughout the week.
“Our university is piloting a new program this year called the University Studies Program General Education for the 21st Century,” Strand explains. “Environmental studies is a huge part of that and it’s the first time that it’s really been part of the general education requirement. [The program is] trying to get our students more focused on the fact that sustainability is huge, and through this they’re teaching our students the reason, for example, why would you want to eat meatless. That’s the piece we were missing, we were never really getting the message across to our students, and they were just pushing back instead of absorbing why it is important to eat meatless.”
Included in the revised approach is the opening of a dedicated vegetarian station at Blackhawk Commons. While still in the early phases, the purchase of a big-screen television and new software for nutritional kiosks has aided with the education portion. The benefits of reducing meat consumption, including statistics and data, rotate on the television. “We’re trying to focus more on the education of our students because what we want them to do is, once they leave here, we want them to carry those habits on, whereas we thought [with] the Meatless Mondays program, they were going to get out of here and be like, ‘whew, we don’t have to deal with that anymore’ and so we would have failed and we don’t want that to happen,” Strand says.
According to Strand, the new approach has “been very successful” with the students. “We do see the traffic coming back. It’s not all the way back, but it is coming back. Now we just have to do the other piece, which is getting the word out and helping them to understand that it’s a good idea to avoid eating meat if you can.”