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Basalt town council has a beef with meat
Moving to vegetarian meals not as simple as it might seem
A highland steer battles a swarm of flies in a pasture in Emma. Ranching has a long history in the Basalt area. - photo by Todd Hartley

The Basalt Town Council decided Sept. 24 to start serving strictly vegetarian meals before its semi-weekly meetings, and for a move that is rather small in a real-world sense, the decision has managed to spark some contentious debate.

On the surface, cutting out the meat from a single meal for about a dozen people once a fortnight won’t change much. The cost of the meal probably won’t vary by a lot. The local restaurants that provide the food won’t be all that different, and the size of the Town of Basalt’s carbon footprint will be virtually unchanged. But on a symbolic level, the vegetarian meals seem to be resonating with the local populace for both positive and negative reasons. 

The idea was put forth by council member Katie Schwoerer at the council’s last meeting, and council member Auden Schendler supported the proposal with a plate of fried chicken sitting in front of him, calling it “a good statement.” There was no formal vote taken, but all the affected parties seemed willing to give it a try and declared they would start with vegetarian meals at the next council meeting.

It seemed simple enough, but then a newspaper article about the move appeared in The Aspen Times on Sept. 26 with the headline “Where’s the beef? Not on the plates of Basalt Town Council members.” This, in turn, prompted some to declare that making the meal vegetarian was insulting to Basalt’s ranching heritage, which can still be seen in the form of cattle grazing in conservation easement-protected pastures just a few hundred yards from Town Hall.

One Basalt local, Mary Kenyon (who writes a column for this paper), declared in an email that the council “has slapped the faces of the ranchers and cattlemen who not only settled this valley but continue to support it with land swaps and donations.”

Unfortunately, repeated attempts to make contact with Schwoerer were unsuccessful, so she was unavailable to address the claim of anti-rancher sentiment. Likewise, she wasn’t able to speak to another bone of contention that has arisen as a result of the vegetarian move: the charge that what the council is really doing is just virtue signaling – doing something that has little practical merit just to draw attention to how noble one is.

It’s a charge that came up in the comments section of the Aspen Times story, where conservative Times columnist Glenn Beaton asked, “Can we just say that they are all really, really virtuous people? Then maybe they’ll get back to work.”

Highland cattle graze in a pasture at a cattle ranch in Emma, one of the few working ranches in the Basalt area. - photo by Todd Hartley
It’s a feeling that has festered since the end of August, when the town approved a resolution, “endorsing a declaration of a climate emergency and requesting regional collaboration on an immediate just transition and emergency mobilization effort to restore a safe climate.” 

Critics derided the Schwoerer-proposed resolution as meaningless virtue signaling and worried that it might embolden the town to take Draconian measures to ensure the participation of Basalt’s citizens and businesses. Whether that will happen remains to be seen, but for now, the most visible new initiative spurred by the resolution seems to be the council’s vegetarian meals. And while it’s easy to go vegetarian in theory, it’s going to fall to Town Clerk Pam Schilling to figure out the nuts and bolts.

For instance, while dairy products – particularly cheese pizza – will still be allowed, where will the council fall on things like chicken broth or beef broth that are part of many recipes?

“I don’t know,” said Schilling, with a laugh. “I don’t know how these places make their food, but now I’ll have to start asking. It’ll be a little more challenging.”

Schilling gets the meals each week from restaurants and markets in Basalt only, with the money coming out of the council’s $7,300 budget for supplies in 2019. She said she anticipates using the same restaurants she’s always used but looking more closely into the non-meat options on their menus. She’s also hopeful that her ordering might lead to some surprises she hadn’t thought of before.

“I’d be excited if somebody stepped up and said, ‘Hey, we do all of that,’” said Schilling. “I’d be happy to find something like that, but we’ve got a good number of restaurants and I think they all have great offerings. I just need to dig a little deeper and we’ll be fine.”

The council hopes that by going vegetarian, they’ll be setting a good example from a carbon-footprint standpoint, as meat production is more damaging to the planet than plant production. They could also be helping spur people to make a money-saving change, as well. Some researchers suggest that cutting out meat can save people as much as $750 per year.

But while going vegetarian may be healthier for the planet and for people’s wallets, it may not actually be better for their health. On Sept. 30 the New York Times ran a story with the headline “Eat Less Red Meat, Scientists Said. Now Some Believe That Was Bad Advice.” The gist of it was that an international collaborative of researchers has declared that a vegetarian diet isn’t necessarily healthier than one that includes beef and pork.

It may or may not be true, and doctors’ opinions about it will probably change in a month, but combined with Basalt’s alleged virtue signaling and anti-rancher leanings, it adds up to a lot more to think about than one would expect from a simple dinner decision twice a month.