story by Eliza Barclay
illustration by Katherine Streeter
This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Eleven.
ONE SQUALLY MONDAY THIS FALL, I drove across Baltimore, past hundreds of brick rowhouses, some buttressed by postage-stamp-sized front lawns, to a pre- K-through-eighth-grade school on the west side. I wanted to find out what students at the school had to say about the new weekly substitution in their lunches of the chicken nuggets and hamburgers with eggplant and beans.
Baltimore City Public is the first school district in the United States to make Meatless Mondays a weekly part of the school lunch menu. The motor behind this new meatless campaign is Tony Geraci, an increasingly visible spokesman for the movement to revamp school lunches across the country.
In the early 20th century, school cafeterias churned out fresh meals with fresh ingredients supplied by local farms. But that changed when the U.S. Department of Agriculture began subsidizing food for school districts in 1958, funneling processed commodities into the mouths of children. Eventually, schools replaced chicken thighs with prepackaged fried chicken nuggets, and apples with fruit-flavored Jell-O. In its 2009 annual survey, the School Nutrition Association found that more than 80% of schools cook fewer than half of their main dishes from scratch.
Geraci took over as Baltimore’s food service director in 2008 after a stint in New Hampshire developing a farm-to-school program that replaced processed, prepared foods with dishes made by hand. In Baltimore he’s trying to do the same thing, and has added Meatless Mondays as a new twist to the menu changes.
While the question of meat consumption begs a tangle of complex ethical, environmental, health, and economic questions, Geraci’s principal goal is simple: to promote health and prod kids to eat a more varied diet. Mellissa Mahoney, the school district’s chef and dietitian, says Meatless Mondays has reduced the cholesterol and saturated fats in the lunch offerings and introduced alternate proteins and vegetables. Geraci’s personal interest in health (he is a diabetic) and concern about rising rates of childhood obesity also help inform the public health foundation of his radical approach.
“We’re not trying to promote vegetarianism,” says Mahoney. “We’re trying to promote a varied diet. We want to be healthy omnivores.”
The kids I spoke to at Calverton Elementary/Middle were excited about the change. Dajana Mills, an 11-year-old sixth grader, told me she looked forward to finding out what the Meatless Monday entrée would be every week.
“It gives us a chance to pick different stuff instead of meat,” said Mills. She’s also tried new vegetables like eggplant and “white stuff,” which we soon determined to be cauliflower.
When I asked another sixth-grader, Shane Garey, if he thought Meatless Mondays was more healthy, he responded promptly, “Yeah, it has less calories.” Garey, a slender boy with long eyelashes, did not seem bothered by this change to his lunches.
“They find out this tastes pretty good. It’s different, but then they say, ‘Lemme try some more.’”
The day I visited, kids were choosing between a grilled cheese sandwich and a veggie chili bowl with black beans, salsa, and rice. There was also salad, corn, and fresh fruit. Calverton’s cafeteria director Gail Pendelton told me she and her staff have had fun learning Mahoney’s new vegetarian recipes.
“It’s great, and you know, here in our kitchen we’ve changed our outlook on what we eat because of the different items being offered,” she said. “Now we changed our diet, and feel better about what we’re serving.”
At the beginning of the term, when Meatless Mondays commenced, Pendelton said kids were a bit apprehensive about the new items. So she started putting out small samples of entrées like eggplant Parmesan and veggie lasagna so that kids could try them first.
“They find out this tastes pretty good,” said Pendelton. “It’s different, but then they say, ‘Lemme try some more.’”
Calverton’s principal, Tanya Green, has embraced Meatless Mondays as an opportunity to teach kids about health and nutrition. (Other Baltimore schools have voluntarily done this, too; it hasn’t been mandated for everyone.) In science and health classes in the elementary and middle-school grades, teachers are talking about Meatless Mondays in relation to the food pyramid. Kids also have the chance to design menus and come up with other ideas for vegetarian entrées.
Mahoney says some parents have been less receptive than the kids to the changes in the menu. “Some parents cuss me out for not serving hot dogs and hamburgers every day,” she noted. She tells parents she hasn’t gotten rid of those kid favorites but has expanded the three-week menu rotation into a six-week rotation to allow for more variety. Baltimore students still get chicken nuggets and hot dogs, just not as often.
The American Meat Institute, along with the Animal Agriculture Alliance, the Missouri Beef Council, and the editors of Pork magazine, have also, unsurprisingly, not been supportive of Baltimore’s meatless movement, and went to the press themselves.
Baltimore students still get chicken nuggets and hot dogs, just not as often.
Janet Riley, of the American Meat Institute, went on Lou Dobbs’ former show on CNN to chastise Baltimore for depriving its students of a key nutrient: protein. Her boss, the group’s CEO, has also written a public letter to Baltimore City Schools’ CEO Andrés Alonso, noting he was “disturbed” by the initiative and that “meat and poultry may be the only significant source of protein” in Baltimore kids’ diets. Nutritional scientists, including New York University’s Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, have refuted this claim as bogus. “All proteins are made of the same amino acids,” Nestle told a blogger from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health who questioned Riley’s claim. “There is no ‘need’ for animal proteins at all.”
I spoke with Riley by phone the day after her interview with Dobbs. When I asked her about the problem of childhood obesity and other health issues, she replied: “Meat is associated with weight control. It’s not the number one source of fat in their diet.” She also invoked her own two sons to emphasize that kids require animal protein in their diets. “Meat is what keeps them satisfied and out of the pantry,” she told me.
The pork industry was equally distressed. In an editorial published in October, Pork wrote, “The Baltimore school officials have taken it upon themselves to relieve dietitians and nutritionists of part of their duties, at least for the first day of the school week.” Funnily enough, it was the school district’s only dietitian, Mahoney, who conceived the program.
And the Baltimore Sun reported that the Animal Agriculture Alliance has implored citizens “shocked” by Meatless Mondays to contact Alonso “to ensure this effort does not spread.” But it appears to be too late. Many school districts are ramping up their daily vegetarian offerings, while in Finland the Helsinki City Council recently voted to have a vegetarian day once a week in Helsinki schools. And Manhattan borough president Scott M. Stringer has proposed that the New York City Department of Education include Meatless Mondays in its school lunch policy. Stringer, like Geraci, says reducing meat consumption can help the city combat childhood obesity and other health issues, which seems to be the strongest argument a meatless advocate can make.
The mixed reaction to Meatless Mondays seems to be yet another example of the sensitivity around food policy and food culture, but the buzz generated by Baltimore’s new program is forcing a lot of people to ask how essential daily meat consumption is to the diet. Our food system is broken, and we have difficult questions to ask and answers to find to address our burgeoning health and environmental problems. Teaching kids to be curious about food and understand how it impacts health seems like a good place to start.
Part of this article originally appeared as a blog post on The Atlantic’s Food Channel.
ELIZA BARCLAY is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., and is currently researching meat consumption patterns in the United States and China. She has written about food, health, the environment, and other topics for publications such as The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and National Geographic News. Her website is www.elizabarclay.com.
KATHERINE STREETER resides in downtown New York City. Her mixed-media collages can be seen in many publications worldwide, and she is also involved with various projects for books and gallery walls. Only some of her creative adventures are meat-related.