June 20, 2013
What a Difference a Day Makes
A global phenomenon, the Meatless Monday movement benefits human health, animal welfare, and the environment
by Ruthanne Johnson
The appeals for support came from the top. First during World War I and again during World War II, when three American presidents urged the nation to adopt voluntary meatless days to conserve food for the troops and allied countries. The response was overwhelming—during WWI, more than 13 million families pledged to reduce their meat consumption.
Generations later, Meatless Monday was back—but not because of scarcity. This time it was spawned by an overconsumption of meat that’s contributing to record numbers of cases of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and a litany of other diseases. Backed by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future, Meatless Monday is now standard fare in corporate cafeterias, restaurants, schools, health institutions, and home kitchens.
As the nation’s second largest public school system, Los Angeles Unified School District is one of many institutions proving that Meatless Monday is feasible even on a broad scale. “We cook from scratch, too,” says LAUSD deputy director of food services David Binkle. “So no one can say they can’t do it when here we are doing it 600,000 times a day.”
Over the past two years, HSUS food policy manager Kristie Middleton has helped shepherd more than 100 schools, school districts, universities, and hospitals into the program. In her outreach to large-scale food service operations, Middleton emphasizes that current levels of meat consumption—9 billion animals raised for food each year—are directly tied to industrial factory farm practices that value efficiency over animal welfare. By helping to reduce the numbers, these companies can pave the way for more humane methods such as those practiced by traditional family farms. “These institutions can sometimes serve hundreds of thousands of meals in a single day,” says Middleton, “meaning a significant reduction in the amount of meat served, and thus, animals raised in intensive confinement.”
Meatless Monday goes hand in hand with The HSUS’s Three Rs approach to humane eating: reduce consumption of animal-based foods, refine the diet by selecting products from producers who follow higher welfare standards, and replace animal products with plant-based foods. HSUS toolkits provide step-by-step instructions, marketing ideas, and recipes.
The campaign goes beyond the mass market to reach the family dinner table: Roughly one in five Americans participate in Meatless Monday, according to a meat industry study. The following institutions have helped make Meatless Monday a cultural phenomenon. We’ve served up their stories with links to some of our favorite farmer’s-market-fresh recipes gleaned from weekly HSUS e-newsletters that promote healthy, humane eating.
Academy for Global Citizenship, Chicago, Illinois
Estimated Meals Served Daily: 600
The Inspiration: For this public charter school, Meatless Monday “fits perfectly with our philosophy of healthy kids, a healthy environment, and compassion towards animals,” says director of sustainability and operations Dan Schnitzer.
When a student seems uninterested in the food, staff will eat with the child to inspire him to at least give it a try. The school’s garden, solar panels, and backyard chickens give students hands-on experience with sustainable living. “They really like taking care of [the chickens],” says Schnitzer, remembering their concern for one sick hen. “She stayed in my office during the day. … The kids would pop in every now and then and say, ‘How’s Buttercup doing?’ ” Students collect eggs to give away for home use and will soon harvest vegetables for the school’s kitchen.
Meatless Faves: Vanilla-spiced oatmeal, confetti soup, and tofu posole
Bringing It Home: For families interested in Meatless Monday at home, AGC provides recipes and pamphlets.
Top Tips: Just try it, Schnitzer advises. “The concept won’t resonate with everybody. But it will be successful if the food is good.”
Hunts Point Alliance for Children, New York, New York
Estimated Meals Served Daily: 4,000
The Inspiration: The Hunts Point Alliance for Children—a partnership of six schools and other nonprofits—is dedicated to providing youth opportunities, including a summer camp for humane living. “Middle and elementary school is the prime time to educate kids about being kind to animals …” says HPAC managing director Maryann Hedaa. “They get it.”
After an HSUS presentation last fall, partner school St. Ignatius became HPAC’s pilot for the Meatless Monday initiative and now offers vegetarian options most Mondays. JVL Wildcat Academy, an alternative high school, is now developing vegetarian recipes in its culinary arts program.
Meatless Faves: Tacos packed with marinated veggies and textured vegetable protein, created by sous-chef Luis Novoa, a former JVL student
Bringing It Home: At St. Ignatius’ cooking classes, parents and kids learn how to make “healthy, nutritious meals that are within their economic means,” Hedaa says.
Top Tips: JVL principal Marc Donald suggests enlisting the support of community leaders and parents. Meatless Monday also leads to teachable moments, says HPAC board member Michelle Icahn, by providing a hook for classroom discussion.
Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York
Estimated Meals Served Daily: 3,000
The Inspiration: When dining services marketing manager Rebecca Sexton read the email about Meatless Monday from The HSUS’s Kristie Middleton, she was immediately intrigued. “It was the healthy thing to do,” she says, especially in one dining hall dominated by meat and comfort foods.
The food service team experimented with plate presentation, offered samplings, and broadened the recipe palette. Their strategy worked, as evidenced by the small uproar when the vegetarian entrée was relocated on the serving line and students feared it had been nixed. Two years later, Meatless Monday is going strong. “It truly resonates with our population,” says Sexton.
Meatless Faves: Scratch-made falafels drizzled in cucumber sauce and tucked in a pita pocket
Bringing It Home: Sustainability interns blog, tweet, and post on Facebook every week about upcoming vegetarian entrées and the benefits of healthy eating; the college also educates students about the environmental impacts of factory farming. In the main dining hall, a media station broadcasts the day’s vegetarian dishes on two flat-screen televisions, helping build interest and tantalize taste buds.
Top Tips: Be creative, advises Sexton. “If you make recipes presentable and tasting good, your battle is won.”
The Valley Hospital, Ridgewood, New Jersey
Estimated Meals Served Daily: 2,500
The Inspiration: Dawn Cascio’s interest in Meatless Monday was sparked at a “Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives” conference, which highlighted research showing that plant-based diets are the healthiest. “We knew Meatless Monday was a great way to spread that message,” says Cascio, director of food services at the 451-bed hospital.
The kickoff menu included flavorful Asian lettuce wraps, while interns donned farm animal costumes. Cascio says the vegetarian meals are so appealing that few even notice they’re meat-free. Since the program began, more than 400 employees have signed the Meatless Monday pledge.
Meatless Faves: Black bean quesadillas, noodle bowls, and wheat berry salad with spinach, blueberries, pineapple, molasses, and mint
Bringing It Home: Email blasts and recipes posted on Facebook and the hospital’s Intranet educate people about meatless menus and the benefits of plant-based diets. Banners, buttons, and aprons advertising the program keep staff and diners engaged in healthy dialogue.
Top Tips: Cascio first pitched the idea to her boss before sending letters and Meatless Monday buttons to the executive team—“because if they buy in, the employees will buy in,” she says.
University of Houston, Houston, Texas
Estimated Meals Served Daily: 2,500–3,000
The Inspiration: “Culturally, Texas is a state that enjoys meat-containing dishes,” says Caroline Sullivan, dietitian with the University of Houston’s dining services. But school officials also recognize the changing dietary preferences of their student body—and they’re now offering up to seven meatless options every Monday at one of the university’s busiest dining halls. Positive comments about the new menu have poured in from students and staff, making Meatless Monday the new staple.
Meatless Faves: Caribbean sweet potatoes, peppers stuffed with bulgur and spinach, black bean burgers, tofu chili garlic noodle bowl
Bringing It Home: To promote and educate diners about Meatless Monday, dining services staff blog and tweet about the program, host tabling events, and post special signage every Monday. “I Chose Veggies” stickers are handed out to students who’ve opted for the day’s meatless offering, while trivia, games, and challenges encourage participation.
Top Tips: “The biggest key for us has been consistent awareness and education about the program,” Sullivan says. “Students wanted to understand the health and environmental impact.”