Meatless Mondays: It Helps Combat Our Warming Planet -- and Thickening Waists

Tacos, yes, but meatless tacos: black bean with strawberry salsa. Get the recipe from KCET Food here. | Photo: Kate Taylor/KCET

How powerful is Big Ag on Capitol Hill? The Congressional Vegetarian Caucus would be glad to tell you.

Earlier this summer, the recently formed group negotiated with Restaurant Associates, operator of the congressional dining facilities, to offer a handful of vegetarian options once a week at a single stand in one cafeteria. The qualifiers are important. Although the caterer marketed the limited opportunity as Meatless Mondays, it had no intention of taking beef, pork, or poultry off the menu, only to provide some veggie-friendly fare.

Such key facts did not get in the way of Steve Kopperud, executive vice president of Policy Directions, Inc., an inside-the-Beltway lobby shop. The former senior executive of the American Feed Industry Association, who counts among his coups the passage of "the Animal Facility Protection Act/Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act to protect ag, food and biomedical research from animal rights and environmental radicals," launched a quick strike.

In a letter to the House Administration Committee, he blasted the new menu option as "pure propaganda." Then he spun some of his own, telling Roll Call that this Meatless Monday option was "a purely political concoction of a vocal anti-meat lobby." Shocker alert: Restaurant Associates was cowed, immediately reneging on its agreement with the Vegetarian Caucus and refusing to discuss its actions with the media.

More intriguing is that Kopperud even bothered to notice the caterer's limited gesture to non-meat eaters on the Hill. Every lobbyist needs to demonstrate his chops, and in flexing his muscles Kopperud did just that. Yet his protest, and the hyper rhetoric that he wrapped it in, seems a sign that the meat lobby and its Big Ag sidekicks are running a tad scared.

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The numbers set some of this context. Vegetarians in the U.S. amount to about 5 percent of the adult population (roughly 11 million people; my family and I are among those who prefer carrots to corn dogs). This percentage has grown recently, but that's not the segment of people that so agitates the livestock and poultry industries. Rather it is the rising generation and their parents that are of concern, for many of them are participating in the current national Meatless Monday movement that ad-man Sid Lerner revitalized and The Johns Hopkins University kicked off in 2003.

Researchers at the school's Bloomberg School of Public Health conducted studies of the rapid increase in obesity rates and related illnesses, assessed the relative impact that meat consumption has had on this worrisome spike, and concluded that a simple step Americans could take to enhance their life chances was to decrease the amount of animal fat and protein they consume. The American Institute for Cancer Research makes the same claim: "When it comes to American health, the research shows one thing very clearly: We all need to eat more plants and less meat."

Meatless Monday marketing. | Image: Courtesy The Monday Campaigns, Inc.
Meatless Monday marketing. | Image: Courtesy The Monday Campaigns, Inc.

Since then, Meatless Monday advocates -- including the Humane Society of the United States -- have particularly focused on families with school-aged children knowing that they have the greatest chance of benefitting the most from even a one-day-a-week change in diet. K-12 schools, including many that ring Washington, D.C., have signed on, serving up more plant-based foods in their breakfast and lunch lines and participating in related educational workshops for kids, parents, and teachers.

Colleges and universities have also jumped on the bandwagon as part of their expansive efforts to green their campuses, plate by plate. City councils have embraced the concept, too, passing resolutions to encourage their residents to go meatless on a weekly basis, among them the capital city in which lobbyist Kupperud works.

To D.C.'s immediate north, Montgomery County has encouraged its residents to eat more vegetables and fruit as a way to reclaim their health and boost the economy by patronizing local farmers' markets and community farms and gardens.

Although Kupprud may dismiss the significance of these efforts, he would be hard pressed to ignore the import of a poll the meat industry paid for: It revealed that half of all Americans had heard of Meatless Mondays, and 20 percent had partaken of its healthier bounty.

Sure, Meatless Mondays may seem like the passing fancy of contemporary culture, a flowering vine that will die in time. To counter that possibility, its proponents have grafted their cause on other hot-button topics as a way to broaden its appeal and deepen its hold. Pitching the benefits of meatlessness to an aging society anxious about the manifold ramifications of getting old makes good sense; less meat, for example, may mean fewer coronaries and colon cancer.

It's just as savvy to promote an increase in the amount of plant food we consume as an antidote to the crisis that climate change poses. One statistic that should be of special significance to car-crazy Los Angeles: If every American went meatless one day a week, says filmmaker Monique van Dijk Armor, producer of Meat the Truth, the "carbon savings would be the same as taking 19.2 million cars off U.S. roads for a year."

As for those happy California cows (and less giddy ones elsewhere), they are a large part of the problem. The UN calculates that the meat industry is responsible for an estimated 20 percent of manmade methane gas, arguably the most climate-disruptive of the greenhouse gases. Add to this disturbing statistic the fact that to produce a single pound of beef requires upwards of 2000 gallons of water and a lot of fossil fuel, and you'll appreciate why consuming more fruits and produce is a recipe for a healthier planet and people.

Image: Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the U.S. Food Administration
Image: Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the U.S. Food Administration

Rooting Meatless Monday in the past gives it another durable claim on our attention. Earlier generations, faced with calamities that seemed as pressing as climate disruption, also decided to radically alter their eating habits as a patriotic act. During World War I, Americans were urged to forgo meat in favor of vegetables and fish, to substitute corn meal for wheat. "Food Will Win the War" was the rousing slogan.

The driving force behind this idea was Herbert Hoover, then head of the wartime U.S. Food Administration. He and his staff coined the term Meatless Mondays (and Wheatless Wednesdays), promoting the idea that these days of privation must be a matter of choice. "Our conception of the problem in the United States is that we should assemble the voluntary effort of the people," the future president asserted. "We propose to mobilize the spirit of self-denial and self-sacrifice in this country."

It worked: During the month of October 1917, the state of Massachusetts saved more than 1.2 million pounds of meat compared to the previous year; during the week of November 12, 1917, hotels and restaurants in New York City reported conserving 232,254 pounds of meat or 116.12 tons. Hoover's strategy was so effective as a social policy and rallying cry that during World War II presidents Roosevelt and Truman adopted it with similar results.

It's no wonder then that another generation, confronting a myriad of interrelated environmental challenges and public-health dilemmas, is copying its predecessors' methodologies and hoping to replicate their success.

One gauge of its achievements will be a lowering of the obesity levels among the young (it's beginning to happen). Another will be how many of us on Mondays chose to go meatless at home -- or, if we go out to eat find that an increasing number of chefs have joined L.A.'s own Susan Feniger in providing mouth-watering, meat-free cuisine. And what better symbol could there be of an energized national commitment to a more salubrious society, greener land, and clearer skies than Capitol Hill cafeterias providing a delicious vegetarian menu?

The proof, in short, will be in the pudding.

Get Meatless Monday recipes from KCET Food here.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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