Meatless Monday Muddle

Published in Wellness Watch

Meatless Mondays is 10 years old, but it still is very much a fractured concept, especially when it comes to the issue of customer choice.

By Paul King, Editorial Director

The Meatless Mondays campaign celebrated its 10th anniversary this year with a minimum of fanfare. But while the media largely ignored the milestone they certainly haven’t ignored the concept. There were events, both good and bad, that held the media’s attention.

Last month, to a flurry of print and TV coverage, the San Diego School District became one of the largest districts in the country to embrace Meatless Mondays. Gary Petill, foodservice director for the 132,000-student district, rolled out the program in more than 100 elementary schools to introduce the district’s youngest children to the idea of making vegetarian choices.

That was certainly good news for the campaign, which took a hit earlier in the year when, for the second time in 11 months, a federal government cafeteria appeared to endorse, then backtrack on, Meatless Monday.

In early June, the cafeteria in the Longworth Building of the U.S. House of Representatives announced that it was introducing Meatless Mondays, apparently at the request of the recently formed House Vegetarian Caucus. But within days, after some letters and phone calls from a lobbying group called the Farm Animal Welfare Coalition, the House Administration Committee (HAC) announced that meat was back on the Longworth menu.

Restaurant Associates, one of the Compass Group companies, manages the Longworth cafeteria. Vice President of Marketing Gina Zimmer wouldn’t say on the record what exactly had occurred. But she did explain that, “Compass Group typically does not endorse Meatless Mondays. We prefer to promote the flexitarian diet, which calls for a healthy balance of meat- and plant-based menu options.”

A spokesperson for the HAC tried to downplay the whole thing, saying only that, “it was one sign, one work station, one day.” But the backflip was hard to ignore, especially considering that in July 2012 a similar incident had occurred at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There, an article touting the benefits of Meatless Mondays appeared in an internal newsletter. USDA officials quickly quashed the notion, explaining that the article had appeared without authorization.

The San Diego and Longworth stories seem to sum up perfectly the nature of Meatless Monday—ardently embraced by some operators and just as passionately shunned by others. That dichotomy often revolves around one concept: customer choice.

“Michigan State offers both vegetarian and vegan options in all of our dining neighborhoods,” says Guy Procopio, director of Culinary Services. “Why promote Meatless Monday at the expense of depriving customer choice and satisfaction when meatless options are available seven days a week?”

Rich Neumann, director of dining services at Ohio University, in Athens, is even more strident in his objection.

“Ohio University will not promote any menu style with an agenda tied to it,” says Neumann, who believes that Meatless Mondays is an attempt to convince people to adopt a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. “How can a university ethically promote one dietary choice over another and say they value diversity? How is denying the choice to eat meat every Monday different from denying the choice to eat vegetarian or vegan? The important thing is that all options, meat and meatless, should be available at all times.”

On the other side of the issue, San Diego’s Petill says that even though the district offers vegetarian fare in all its cafeterias every day, introducing Meatless Mondays was essential if the district was going to be able to educate students about the variety of meal options available.

“This is all about education,” Petill notes. “We want to send children a message that you have options. We rolled this out to the youngest children because their eating habits are still being formed. We went totally meatless because if you give kids a choice between meat and no meat, they will choose meat.

“Our only focus is to teach,” Petill adds. “We introduce items and if students like them we keep them. If they don’t we swap them out. We’re not trying to fool anyone, and I’m not going to get political about it.”

This passion, of course, extends to the organizations that see themselves as stakeholders in the success, or failure, of the Meatless Mondays campaign. There is a great divide between those groups, such as the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, that proselytize for the movement, and organizations like the American Meat Institute and the Animal Agriculture Alliance, that staunchly oppose any attempt to decrease meat consumption.

Reviving an old concept

The idea of giving up meat for a day is certainly not new or particularly novel. For centuries, Roman and Eastern Orthodox Catholics, as well as Anglicans, abstained from meat on Fridays as a sign of sacrifice to god for spiritual gain. In both World Wars, U.S. presidents urged Americans to give up meat one day a week to aid the war effort.

Meatless Mondays in its current form was given birth in 2003 as part of the Healthy Mondays campaigns, which also include smoking cessation, exercise programs and even HIV testing. But the answer of by whom and for what reason Meatless Mondays was begun depends to whom you are speaking.

“Meatless Mondays really started out as a way to reduce saturated fats,” says Peggy Neu, president of the Meatless Mondays campaign, who credits advertising executive Sid Lerner with its formation. “[Lerner] was in a meeting at Johns Hopkins University and somebody mentioned that the surgeon general had recommended that people should try to reduce their intake of saturated fat by 15%. [Lerner] said, ‘Oh, if we just knocked off meat one day a week we could achieve that.’ Then he remembered about Meatless Mondays from World War II and decided to bring the idea back.” Neu adds that the campaign “really started taking off on college campuses” a few years later when the realization of Meatless Mondays as a sustainability issue was thrown into the mix. Neu claims that there are currently Meatless Monday campaigns in 25 countries.

But Kay Johnson Smith puts a much different spin on Meatless Mondays’ origin. Smith is president of the Animal Agriculture Alliance, a 25-year-old coalition of farmers, ranchers and organizations that represent the interests of farmers and ranchers.

“Meatless Mondays is not a grassroots effort that is all about being healthy,” Smith claims. “It is a campaign that originated and continues to be promoted by animal rights activists.”

In Smith’s version, Meatless Mondays was conceived not by Sid Lerner but by his wife, Helaine. Helaine is the founder and president of the GRACE Communications Foundation. According to the foundation’s website, GRACE—which stands for Global Resource Action Center for the Environment—was founded “to communicate and address the environmental and health problems with our present industrial food system.”

“[Helaine] and her husband launched this program as an incremental approach to eliminating meat from one’s diet,” Smith adds. “If they can convince people to do it one day, then why not two days and then three days and so on? The ultimate goal is to create a vegan society one day at a time.”

Neu says this is not the case—at least as far as the Meatless Mondays organization is concerned.

“What we’re really about is moderation and choice,” Neu says. “While there are organizations out there that want to take meat away totally, we don’t encourage that at all. We really see this as one day a week promoting plant-based options. Research shows that we don’t eat enough vegetables. That’s kind of clear. So this is a way of celebrating plant-based options.”

But other organizations are even more firmly in the Meatless Mondays camp. Kristie Middleton, food policy manager for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), says her organization “has worked with dozens of institutions across the U.S. on implementing Meatless Mondays.”

“Americans have among the highest per capita meat consumption in the world,” says Middleton, whose organization was one of those that approached the San Diego School District about starting its Meatless Monday program. “Providing plant-based meals to kids can improve their health and raise their consciousness about how their food choices connect to important social questions about public health, the environment and the treatment of animals.”

When associations such as the American Meat Institute (AMI) hear comments from groups like HSUS about “the environment and the treatment of animals,” they feel compelled to respond to combat the misinformation they believe is being spread.

AMI has created a website called Meat Myth Crushers, which features videos and other resources that demonstrate the meat industry’s benefits to the economy and to consumers.

“We are trying to combat all the misinformation that is out there about the industry and its effects on the environment,” says Janet Riley, senior vice president of public affairs for AMI. “If someone wants to follow a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, that’s their choice and we’re fine with it. Our problem is with people making decisions based on falsehoods and incorrect data.”

Similarly, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) supports a site called factsaboutbeef.com to help dispel some of the notions about beef as both a health problem and environmental hazard.

“From a food safety and animal welfare standpoint, the beef industry is better than it’s ever been,” says Chase Adams, national communications director for the NCBA.

Several meat producers were contacted for this story. None agreed to comment on the record.

The operator perspective

Meanwhile, in the trenches, operators operate seemingly uninfluenced by the contentious dialogue that goes on between the meat industry and environmental or animal rights organizations. In the vast majority of cases, foodservice departments base their decisions about Meatless Mondays as much, if not more, on what their customers want.

Foodservice operators fall into one of three camps with regard to Meatless Mondays. A very small number of operators, mostly school districts, have no meat on the menu that day. A number of these districts are in California, including San Diego School District, Los Angeles Unified School District and Novato Unified School District, which is north of San Francisco.

Novato’s director, Miguel Villareal, may be the most passionate representative of the campaign; he admits his involvement grew out of personal lifestyle changes he made about 10 years ago.

“We offer vegetarian items every day, but we really try to promote the concept of Meatless Mondays,” Villareal says. “I thought Meatless Mondays was a great opportunity to educate our students, our teachers and our community. I got some pushback; faculty said the students wouldn’t go for it. Now you have some of the largest school districts in the country adopting it.”

Of course, Villareal is more radical than most foodservice operators. He eliminated fruit juice from all 13 schools in the 7,500-student district several years ago and he stopped serving red meat in the district six years ago.

But because of the changes Villareal has made, he says it was actually quite simple to comply with the new USDA meal guidelines.

Interestingly, it is with school districts like Novato and San Diego that the Animal Agriculture Alliance (AAA) says it has the biggest problem.

“Thirty one million children participate in the NSLP,” says AAA’s Smith. “That might be the only meal they get for the day. It’s a recognized fact that animal proteins provide nutrients that you can only get from those sources—in particular B 12. Eliminating those options on any day of the week disturbs the overall health and well-being of children.”

The educational component

But directors like Villareal appear to be in the minority. A larger percentage of operators promote Meatless Mondays by adding more vegetarian items to the menu on that day, by highlighting meatless options and/or providing educational materials around the idea of choosing to abstain from meat for one day a week.

Syracuse University (SU), in New York, is one example. According to Keone Weigl, director of marketing for Dining Services, the campaign has been in place for the past four years.

“Each Monday we highlight items on our menu as a suggestion to those interested in trying something meatless,” Weigl says. “The SU campus has been very supportive. The marketing and variety of food choices has created awareness of the day and what it stands for. New students and parents recognize the Meatless Monday logo and are pleased to see this is something we support.”

Syracuse University is home to the Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion, and Dining Services has collaborated with the Lerner Center on the campaign for the last two years. The center’s patrons are Sid and Helaine Lerner, the founders of Meatless Monday’s current iteration.

The University of California San Francisco Medical Center is another institution that has embraced a less strict version of Meatless Mondays, for both health and sustainability reasons.

“We have been offering our version for almost two years,” says Dan Henroid, director of nutrition and food services. “Our version features two meatless stations, plus featuring vegetarian specials at all our other stations. We have not gotten rid of all meat but have changed the focus of our stations. We have even come up with a new Vietnamese-inspired concept with fresh spring rolls and rice noodle bowls to keep overall meat consumption lower.”

Henroid also says his department is tracking the amount of meat served as part of the Healthy Hospitals Initiative (HHI). The HHI challenges hospitals to decrease the amount of meat purchased by 20% during a three-year period.

At the other end of the country, in Glen Cove, N.Y., Glen Cove Hospital has its own version of the campaign.

“I prefer to call it ‘less meat Mondays,’” says Michael Kiley, director of nutrition and food service. “We want to encourage our staff to eat more plant-based menu options but could not stop [offering] meat totally in our retail areas. We encourage customers by offering a delicious entrée that is bundled with bottled water and fresh fruit at a reasonable price.”

Kiley says his department follows the cause for health and sustainability reasons, but the emphasis is on diet. He even set up a culinary education class for his chefs with the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City.

“The goal of this is to learn about the advantages of incorporating more plant-based menu items into our diets and in those whom we serve,” Kiley explains. The initiative is designed to provide us culinarians with the latest scientific findings about diet and nutrition, combined with practical, healthful cooking skills, ideas and inspiration.”

Of the contract management companies, Sodexo is probably the one that has been most active in the movement. But the company does not advocate going completely meat free, according to Tawnya Hutchinson, director of wellness for Sodexo Healthcare.

“Our Meatless Monday promotion has been going on for the past three years,” Hutchinson says. She adds that the company has worked closely with the Meatless Mondays organization on the program.

“It’s an education piece,” she says. “We don’t actually have to go meat free. Most of our accounts do not. We really encourage choice, and I think that’s very important. One of the things I hear from our customers is that we need to make our healthy choices easier [to access]. The more exciting we can make [vegetarian items], the more flavorful we can make them and the more education we can put behind it, the more likely we are to bring them back to that option the next time.”

Hutchinson emphasizes that Sodexo has found it important “not to make meat ‘bad.’ What I hear from operators is that the program is popular because we’re not limiting all the other choices. If somebody still wants to go over and get that hamburger, in many locations they are still able to do that.”

“Meatless every day”

But the majority of operators FSD contacted do not endorse Meatless Mondays, for any number of reasons.

For some, location plays an important consideration. Mary Molt, assistant director of foodservice at Kansas State University, in Manhattan, says the campaign would probably meet with stiff opposition in her beef-friendly state.

“There would be a state legislator or two contacting our university president and threatening to withhold support,” she explains. “We offer meatless options without the fanfare and everyone is happy.”

At other universities, student support for the campaign has not been there. At the University of Connecticut, in Storrs, the student government “asked us not to [implement Meatless Mondays] but instead to enhance the vegetarian options,” according to Dennis Pierce, dining services director. Deon Lategan, director of residential dining services at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, echoed that sentiment. He says that his department’s student advisory group surveyed students, “and we heard back a resounding ‘no,’” regarding implementing a Meatless Monday initiative.

New York University tried doing a true Meatless Monday two years ago at one of its dining locations. The attempt failed.

“The vegan community was happy, but the majority of omnivores or flexitarians were not,” says Owen Moore, director of dining services. “The biggest reason was that students felt we were regulating their choices. We ended up reintroducing some non-vegetarian options, and at the end of the year we discontinued the program.”

Chico State University, in California, is another campus where the Meatless Mondays campaign angered students—and faculty. According to the campus newspaper, Associated Students, which oversees dining, accepted an invitation last fall from HSUS to join the campaign. Understandably, among those who were upset with the dining program aligning itself with HSUS were faculty in the college of agriculture, which is a large academic program at the university. The Meatless Monday program quickly disappeared.

But for many operators, the choice not to embrace Meatless Monday is simply this: They believe that they already provide enough choices in their operations to allow customers to make up their own minds.

Rafi Taherian, director of Yale Dining at Yale University, in New Haven, Conn., says simply, “We [serve meatless dishes] every day. A few years ago we started a strategy to increase our plant-based foods by 30%. During this process we reduced our animal-based protein entrées and increased overall plant-based ones and we are targeting another 20% increase for the next three years.”

Taherian adds that rather than giving animal protein short shrift, his department actually increased the quality of meat it was serving.

What the future holds?

The idea of Meatless Monday, like most trends, continues to evolve. While both sides in the great meat debate continue to commission research and take to the Internet to plead their case and refute the claims of the other side, operators will evaluate the needs and desires of their customers and design programs that fit those profiles.

Scott Berlin, director of dining services at the University of California Santa Cruz, says the concept has merit but will likely take different forms over time.

“Meatless Mondays seems to be all over the place,” Berlin says. “But the name itself sounds like we’re taking something away from the customer. I guess our next big thing will be reinventing Meatless Mondays and marrying it with other aspects of wellness. In foodservice it’s not just about one trend or another. It’s about finding a way to put all of our trends together in a way that best meets the needs of all of our diverse customer population.”