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School's egg plan fresh concept

Unquowa's efforts to improve conditions for chickens in 'cage-free' system praised

LINDA CONNER LAMBECK
lclambeck@ctpost.com
Connecticut Post Online

FAIRFIELD All Alexandra Krakoff, 12, knew about the hard-boiled eggs served at lunch at Unquowa School this year is that they're brown and sometimes hard to peel.

A small price to pay, the seventh-grader from Westport surmised, when she learned the eggs are also now laid by chickens not confined to cages.

Unquowa is believed to be one of the first elementary schools in the nation to go "cage free." It's part of an effort by the small, private pre-K-to-grade 8 school to become more humane and environmentally friendly.

"The Unquowa School has taken a positive step for animal welfare by ending its use of eggs from caged birds and we applaud them," said Paul Shapiro, manager of the Factory Farming Campaign for the Washington-based Humane Society of the United States.

While scores of colleges including some dining halls at the University of Connecticut and Yale University and a handful of high schools nationwide are going the cage-free egg route, Unquowa is the only elementary school to do it, as far as the Humane Society is aware.

Shapiro said egg-laying hens are probably the most abused animals in the world of factory farming because of the intensity and duration of their confinement to cages.

According to the Humane Society, about 95 percent of eggs sold come from hens confined in wire cage enclosures so small the birds can't spread their wings. The cages are generally stacked on top of one another in warehouses on factory farms. Each bird is afforded less space than a single sheet of paper, said Shapiro.

In contrast, cage-free chickens can walk around, spread their wings, perch and lay eggs in nests within barns.

Mitch Head, a spokesman for the United Egg Producers in Atlanta, agreed only a small percentage of egg-laying hens are cage free. However, he said independent research scientists have deemed the caging practice is humane. He also said the industry is simply responding to market demands.

"We would produce more cage-free eggs if the market actually wanted them," he said. "A lot of people say they're for cage-free but at the end of the day when they go to the store, they buy the regular cage-production eggs."

Not Unquowa. Its switch came about through the effort of Headmaster Sharon Lauer, who said using more humanely produced eggs would foster positive ethical values in students.

Because the school is small between staff and students it serves 200 meals a day it goes through just eight to 10 dozen eggs a week. As such, the increased cost for cage-free eggs hasn't eaten a hole in the food budget, Lauer said.

Most eggs at Unquowa are served hard-boiled and laid out on the salad bar.

The school has beginning to introduce its efforts into the curriculum. It's a work in progress. Alex Koslow, 12, a seventh-grader from Weston, said he liked the egg idea.

A member of the school's recycling team, he also gave a thumb's up to the school's use of more locally grown vegetables on the lunch menu. He's even discovered that cooked the right way, cabbage is actually tasty. Joe Miele, the school's chef, uses his wife's Hungarian recipe.

In addition to buying eggs from a farm in Easton, Unquowa is buying its meats from Hummel in New Haven, and soon will switch to an organic milk sold in Connecticut. It is also buying its milk in large containers, rather than half-pint cartons. Between that, and switching to reusable plates, the school's generating far less trash, Lauer said.

While seventh-graders at the school are in charge of recycling, the sixth grade is working on composting. By the fall, it hopes to sell the soil it produces and donate the proceeds to the Heifer Project, a charity that buys livestock for people in third-world countries.

UConn's effort to switch to cage-free eggs, meanwhile, is just seven weeks old. Although it is limited to one dining hall, it is much larger than Unquowa's. Rebecca Gorin, an assistant manager of the Whitney Dining Hall, said she goes through about 83 dozen eggs a week between breakfasts, baking and other cooking needs.

The biggest problem has been the sticker shock. Used to paying about 67 cents a dozen for eggs, she is now paying $1.45 a dozen.

The effort there was started at the urging of an animal rights club on campus. Gorin currently gets her cage-free eggs from New Hampshire but is working on getting them directly from UConn's School of Agriculture.

Like Unquowa, UConn is also working to bring more locally grown food into its food service operation. "The closer the food is to its point of consumption, the less fossil fuel is used," Gorin said.