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Meatless Monday Then and Now

By: Becky Ramsing

BALTIMORE—Oct. 30, 2017. This post was co-authored by Victoria Brown and Becky Ramsing. Meatless Monday as most people know it today began in 2003 with the work of former ad man turned health advocate Sid Lerner and the founder of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Bob Lawrence. But the idea of a meatless day was not totally new, harkening back to the United States’s entry into the first World War 100 years ago. National meatless (and wheatless) days were introduced in 1917 to conserve rations for troops fighting overseas, both in World War I and later World War II. With the focus on reducing at-home consumption of meat during the wars, the practice of Meatless Tuesdays (later Meatless Mondays) was founded on principles that remain relevant and effective today in the modern effort to reduce meat consumption. Furthermore, the impact went far beyond rationing to mobilizing communities, expanding education and promoting public health. Lessons from these early initiatives have striking similarities to public health issues today and provide insight into contemporary efforts.

Wartime meatless days

The history of a national meatless day begins with Herbert Hoover and the Food Administration, founded and funded by Congress in August 1917. You can read more about wartime rationing here, victory gardens here, the original campaigns here and the role of our First Ladies here. At the core of this campaign was a national Meatless Tuesday and Wheatless Wednesday campaign announced by Hoover beginning October 30.

In World War II, President Roosevelt revisited the campaign of World War I’s Meatless Tuesdays in order to save vital transportation for munitions, and the meatless days were aided with rationing cards limiting the amount of meat and other staples each family could buy. Rationing resulted in many families eating meatless regardless of their patriotism because meat was so hard to attain. On Roosevelt’s suggestion, 52 federal cafeterias in Washington, DC, began meatless and fishless Wednesdays on September 2, 1942.[1] The World War II meatless campaign appeared more scattered and individual than the campaign in World War I, but in conjunction with rationing, appears to have been more successful than the first World War’s campaign.

Lessons learned from these initiatives apply today. Wartime meatless days managed to mobilize countless independent and disparate groups to unite around a single cause. Hotel and restaurant owners, traveling salesmen, lumberjacks, hospital and school administrators, women and more responded to the call for meat reduction and other food conservation efforts. Further, as seen in World War II, the meatless campaign was one of the first government-run programs that taught people what and how to eat. Nutritional guidelines set out during the war continued to affect American homes long after restrictions on meat and wheat consumption were lifted. One example is the free and reduced lunch program, which, started in 1946 by President Truman in response to wartime calls for a better-fed and more nutritionally strong population, still continues to support millions of American children today.

Post-war life brought economic prosperity to many Americans. Combined with new agricultural innovations, increased corn and wheat production, and vastly improved transportation, the cost of meat decreased while rising disposable incomes and a growing middle class clamored for more. Meat consumption in the post-WWII period increased steadily until its peak in 2002.

Meatless Monday today

What began as a health-focused response to problems associated with animal production and consumption in 2003 has expanded today into a widely recognized movement addressing health, environment, climate, human and animal welfare—with one simple message, “Once a week, cut out meat.” In its early days as a public health campaign, Meatless Monday encouraged people to reduce their meat consumption by 15% in accordance with a 2000 report by the Surgeon General and the American Heart Association recommending that Americans reduce their meat and saturated fat consumption by 15%. Today we know that high-meat diets, especially those low in vegetables and fruits, are associated with adverse health outcomes such as cancer, heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes.[2] Conversely, studies have found that a higher consumption of fruit and vegetables lowers risk of mortality, cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes.[3] And as the body of evidence has grown, the focus of the campaign has also expanded to harness the actions of individuals, communities and institutions to address the health of the planet by reducing the environmental burden associated with meat production. Meat production alone accounts for 14.5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions,[4] making it a major driver of climate change. Additionally, animal agriculture uses a disproportionate amount of the world’s fresh water, arable land and fossil fuels. The increasing global demand for meat drives the livestock sector, furthering intensive animal confinement and misuse of antibiotics and thus contributing to the growing public health crisis of antibiotic resistance and animal-to-human spread of diseases.

Meatless Monday is the most recognized meat reduction initiative in existence today. It has grown into a global movement powered by a network of participating individuals, hospitals, schools, worksites and restaurants. Meatless Monday messages, recipes and ideas are spread through social media, news articles and bloggers in formats not unlike early meatless days of posters, newspapers, and radio. The simplicity of the Meatless Monday approach has enabled citizens to take steps toward reducing meat their consumption across the US and in over 40 countries around the world – from Croatia to China and Brazil to Bhutan.

In the same way that war-time meatless days asked Americans to express patriotism for their country by forgoing the pleasures of meat, modern Meatless Monday uses nutrition and food systems education modeled in the wartime era and asks citizens to make changes for the better of the planet and all people on it, Meatless Monday is successfully championed by individuals and organizations alike, including restaurants, hospitals and corporate settings.

For more information and resources, visit the Meatless Monday website or the CLF’s technical resource page.

[1] Meatless Days Start Today in Federal Cafes . (1942, September 2). Chicago Daily Tribune .

[2] Pan A, Sun Q., Bernstein AM, Schulze MB, Manson JE, Stampfer MJ, Willett WC, Hu FB. Red meat consumption and mortality: results from 2 prospective cohort studies. Arch Intern Med. 2012; 172(7):555-63.

[3] Wang Xia, Ouyang Yingying, Liu Jun, Zhu Minmin, Zhao Gang, Bao Wei et al. Fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. BMJ 2014; 349:g4490

[4] Gerber PJ, Steinfeld H, Henderson B, et al. Tackling Climate Change through Livestock – A Global Assessment of Emissions and Mitigation Opportunities. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; 2013.

Image: Nedick’s Restaurant, New York, 1942.

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