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The History of Meatless Mondays

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Photo by Allio

Los Angeles recently became the largest city in the nation to support "Meatless Monday," an international campaign to reduce the consumption of meat for health and environmental reasons. The City Council voted 12-0 Friday to support the non-binding resolution in support of Angelenos cutting meat out of their diets one day per week.

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Image courtesy Meatless Monday

Meatless Mondays have, in the past few years, become a cause celebre among the food nerd crowd. Progressive institutions like UC Santa Cruz, pictured above, have embraced it, cooking shows feature it, celebrity chefs support it. The food media has, since about 2009, written about it extensively, generally covering it as a brave new initiative for our more enlightened times.

In truth, Meatless Mondays are more of a rediscovery than a brand new idea. Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health brought the campaign back in 2003 (now called Meatless Monday) after years of late-century dormancy, but it was originally a creation of Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, and the conservation effort brought about by WWI.

In 1917 President Wilson asked Herbert Hoover to take charge of the United States Food Administration (predecessor of the USDA) and through it mandate rationing and relief efforts for U.S. allies in Europe.

This is, of course, the crucial difference between WWI's Meatless Mondays and the contemporary version. Back then, the robust health of Americans, their livestock, and their agricultural land, wasn't the issue. We were trying to save Europe from starvation.

Though some official food rationing was in place in U.S. during WWI, Hoover believed that a largely voluntary rationing program would have more luck in the free-wheeling States. it seems as though he was correct: according to Cornell, in one year alone the U.S. sent almost two million tons of food to Europe.

Image courtesy the National Archives and Records Administration
Image courtesy the National Archives and Records Administration

Since sending food abroad was the stated goal, Wheatless Wednesdays were in practice more important, and had more impact, than Meatless Mondays. Wheatless days have yet to make the comeback Meatless days have, though we suspect that's right around the corner, what with the rising incidence of gluten intolerance and low-carb lifestyles.

Though this version of Meatless Mondays is inherently more selfish than the first go-round, we absolutely applaud, if for no other reason than supporting our compatriots in becoming more thoughtful about what they eat. (It's probably not just a coincidence that McDonald's posted its first monthly losses since 2003 in October.)

Of course, not everyone can afford the luxury of being constantly aware of their daily nutritional intake. In fact, this line in Jan Perry's city council resolution "WHEREAS, low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles have less access to healthy foods" seems to be a reason to vote against a Meatless Monday measure, rather than for it. But perhaps non-binding resolutions such as L.A.'s new one will inspire us to return to the original motivation behind Meatless Mondays: looking out for our fellow humans.

Additional reporting by City News Service