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BU's Vegetarian Society persuades dining halls to serve cage-free eggs

Posted by Maureen Quinlan  April 2, 2012 04:31 PM

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What came first, the chicken or the egg? For three Boston University students, concerns about both chickens and eggs propelled them on an 18-month-long journey that will revamp the Terriers' dining services.

The three -- Kelseanna Smith, Rachel Atcheson and Nathan Shin-- led a campaign, through BU’s Vegetarian Society, to change the school's procurement policy on eggs. Beginning in the fall of 2012, dining services will use only cage-free eggs in its food preparation.

“It was purely a student-run thing," said Shin, who is studying philosophy and psychology. "That was what really motivated me -- seeing all the people fighting for the animals."

Although only vaguely acquainted at first, Shin and his two fellow vegans bonded over their concern for the humane treatment of animals, their interest in public health, and their desire to make an institutional change. After meeting through their membership in the Vegetarian Society, they decided to try to fight against battery-caged eggs.

“For me, it’s just the public health aspect of it,” said Smith, who is studying philosophy and public health. “I just like knowing everything that goes into meat -- and the dairy production really freaks me out.”

According to the Humane Society of the United States, on average, each caged laying hen is afforded only 67 square inches of cage space to live. Caged hens are unable to perform many natural behaviors, such as nesting, perching and dust-bathing. Due to public resistance to battery- cage confinement, many egg producers have switched to cage-free systems.

The first thing Smith, Atcheson and Shin did was to meet with the sustainability coordinator for dining services at BU, to discuss the pros and cons of cage-free eggs. They decided the best approach would be to print out petitions to gather student support. They went into dorm buildings and dining halls and to campus events.

But after an initial meeting with BU dining services, administrators said that not enough students were pushing for the change, the three students said. The administrators also had concerns about the expense, and whether the change would be sustainable.

BU's Vegetarian Society, founded in 2008, has about 40 members -- representative of a much larger group of vegetarians and vegans at the university. Society members knew they would need the support of more students to drive the effort.

“Students weren’t educated about it,” said Smith. “So we started educating them more. I spoke in classrooms -- that was something I did to get petitions signed and to educate people about cage-free eggs."

After casting a broader net for support, the three students met with Marc Robillard, BU's executive director for housing and dining. Robillard was aware of the movement from battery cages to cage-free eggs happening at other area universities, such as Harvard, Emerson College and Brandeis University, all of which have transitioned to 100-percent cage-free eggs.

Robillard said he welcomes students coming to him with requests, although there are always some concerns about cost.

“Certainly I did a lot of research and looked at the issue from many different angles,” he said. “The students that were involved had a deep passion and were very sincere. They had done a lot of homework on it, and even though we didn’t agree with all of their positions on why cage-free was the best for BU, we certainly saw an opportunity to address the concerns of students -- and to possibly have some influence on the humane treatment of hens.”

Despite the added expense, which Robillard said the dining services operation will have to absorb, BU has OK'd the change.

The three student advocates said they were pleased not only with the final decision, but with the way students stepped up to help.

“What I’ve found amazing about this switch was not that the administration listened to us, or that the students supported us,” said Shin. “What really got me was the number of volunteers that BU Vegetarian Society had with getting petitions."

This article was reported and written under the supervision of journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel (l.chedekel@neu.edu), as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern University's Journalism Department.

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