An idea rooted in American civilian war efforts during the two world wars has become a global campaign to promote personal and environmental health. The concept behind Meatless Mondays is a simple one: to eschew meat one day a week and instead choose healthy, non-meat sources of protein. This article examines the movement’s patriotic roots and why, nearly a century later, the initiative is more relevant than ever.
History of Meatless Mondays
During World War I, allied troops were starving in Europe and food rations for American troops serving overseas were in short supply. Iowa native Herbert Hoover, then head of the U.S. Food Administration (now the Food and Drug Administration), led the first Meatless Monday campaign in an effort to avoid mandatory food rationing among civilians and to provide food for the troops and allies.
To encourage Americans to participate, the Food Administration launched an advertising campaign targeting housewives and published meatless recipes in newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets. “Food Will Win the War” became the rallying cry, and the campaign was a success. More than 10 million American families pledged their participation, resulting in a 15 percent voluntary reduction in domestic food consumption and allowing the country to supply the allies with 18.5 million tons of food during a 12-month period from 1918 to 1919.
President Franklin Roosevelt revived the campaign during World War II, and President Truman continued it after the war was over in an effort to help feed the war-torn European nations.
In 1971, the groundbreaking book “Diet for a Small Planet” by Frances Moore Lappé hit the nation’s bookshelves. It was the first major book to question Americans’ reliance on grain-fed meat as a dietary staple and to criticize industrial agriculture as wasteful of our natural resources and a contributor to world food shortages. The book, which has sold over three million copies, explained how modern meat production contributed to world hunger and provided tips and recipes for meatless meals. Later editions of the book made a connection between meat production and climate change.
As evidence mounted regarding the role of excessive meat consumption in the prevalence of chronic and preventable illnesses, Meatless Mondays were resurrected in 2003 by health advocate Sid Lerner as a non-profit public health initiative with backing from the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future. Recognizing the challenges of adopting a total vegetarian or vegan diet and with a philosophy of everything is better in moderation, the movement calls for people to reduce their meat consumption by 15 percent by going meatless one day a week. There is now a worldwide network of workplaces, schools, restaurants and hospitals that participate.
The movement has not been without controversy. In July 2012, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggested in an interoffice newsletter that its employees consider participating in Meatless Mondays as “one simple way to reduce your environmental impact while dining at our cafeterias.” The memo was quickly retracted, however, after meat industry representatives and congressional Republicans, including Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and Representative Steve King, took to Twitter to express their outrage.
Benefits of Meatless Mondays
The benefits of choosing healthy meatless alternatives just one day a week include improved health, reduced risk of chronic disease, preservation of natural resources, and a reduced carbon footprint.
- Reduced cancer risk: In 2007, a panel of experts from the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research concluded, based on a systematic review of multiple scientific studies, that there are links between consumption of red and processed meats and many types of cancer, including colorectal, lung, esophageal, stomach, pancreatic and endometrial.
Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease: Many studies have made the link between saturated fats (also known as solid fats) and the risk of heart disease. The USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend replacing protein foods that are high in solid fats, like some red meats, replacing them with lean sources of protein.
- Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes: Studies also have made a link between meat consumption and a higher incidence of type 2 diabetes.
Increased longevity: As documented in his book, “The Blue Zones,” National Geographic researcher Dan Buettner found that a common trait of communities with the highest life expectancies in the world is a plant-based diet, with minimal meat consumption.
- Reduced environmental impact: Perhaps the infamous USDA interoffice newsletter sums it up best:
The production of meat, especially beef (and dairy as well), has a large environmental impact. According to the U.N., animal agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gases and climate change. It also wastes resources. It takes 7,000 kg of grain to make 1,000 kg of beef. In addition, beef production requires a lot of water, fertilizer, fossil fuels, and pesticides.
Bonus Meatless Monday recipe: Pad Thai with Tofu
This adaptation of a traditional Thai dish is easy enough for a quick week-night dinner using ingredients that can be found in the Asian aisle of many supermarkets.
8 ounces rice noodles
1/4 cup vegetable oil
4 ounces firm tofu, cut into 1″ cubes
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup sliced green onions
2-3 green Thai chilies, thinly sliced (optional)
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 cup bean sprouts
1 carrot, grated
1/2 cup chopped peanuts
1 lime, cut into 4 wedges
Cook noodles as directed on package. Drain thoroughly and set aside.
Heat oil in wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. Add tofu and cook 1 to 2 minutes until golden, stirring constantly. Remove from pan and drain on paper towels. Drain all but 1 tablespoon oil from pan and return to medium-high heat. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Add fish sauce, lemon juice and sugar, and stir until sugar is dissolved. Add noodles and mix to combine.
Push noodle mixture to one side. Add eggs and cook until partially set, then stir gently until scrambled. Combine scrambled eggs with noodle mixture. Add tofu, green onions, chilies, basil and cilantro. Cook about 1 minute longer until heated through.
Divide among 4 plates and garnish with bean sprouts, grated carrot, chopped peanuts and lime wedges.
If you would like to be notified when the Cedar Rapids Healthy Food Examiner publishes a new article, click “subscribe” on this page and follow her on Facebook. Deborah Neyens also is a regular contributor to Hubpages.com and the Cedar Rapids Gazette.