How Much for That Tê Tê? Vietnam’s illegal pangolin trade

April 15, 2010

story by Mike Ives
illustration by Cy De Groat
This article originally appeared in 
Meatpaper Issue Eleven.

THE OTHER NIGHT,  I left my Hanoi apartment and walked around the corner. Eateries in my neighborhood cater to middle-class Vietnamese patrons. English signs hype pizza, sushi, Tex-Mex, free Wi-Fi and pricey local specialities like cha ca — grilled fish with dill, peanuts, and sticky rice noodles.

I ducked into an upscale Vietnamese restaurant with floor seating and Chinese decor. Inside, young professionals were toasting with tiny cups of rice wine. A cheery hostess said in English that the wine was home-brewed. Did I want to taste?

“Actually,” I said, lowering my voice, “I wonder if you’re serving tê tê?”

The hostess smiled, excused herself, and disappeared into the kitchen. A few minutes later, she returned and said she was, for about $200 U.S. dollars per kilogram — more than five times Vietnam’s monthly minimum wage. Somewhat taken off guard, I quickly replied that I had already eaten but would return to try the restaurant another time.

Eating tê tê — the Vietnamese name for pangolin, a scaly nocturnal mammal resembling an anteater — is a fashionable activity among some well-heeled Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City diners. It’s also illegal under Vietnamese law and international treaty. Like other species of wildlife in Southeast Asia, the small, docile mammals are illegally trapped or killed in Indonesian, Lao, Cambodian, and Vietnamese forests. Smugglers ship pangolins to cities in Vietnam and China, where they are eaten in restaurants, used as wine flavoring, or processed into traditional medicines.

Southeast Asia’s illegal pangolin trade appears to be bustling. According to the UK-based wildlife advocacy group TRAFFIC, authorities seized more than 30,000 smuggled pangolins between 2000 and 2007. Two winters ago, officers in Haiphong, a port city in northern Vietnam, seized 23 tons of dead pangolins — the remains of 8,000 animals.

In April 2008, two Vietnamese researchers, Nguyen Dao Ngoc Van and Nguyen Xuan Dang, launched an undercover survey of restaurants, markets, and shops in Vietnam that sell pangolins. Their study, “The Pangolin Trade in Viet Nam,” reported “widespread consumption” of Chinese and Malayan pangolins in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The report said pangolin-infused medicines are typically used to fight “cancers, malaria, rheumatism and circulation problems,” and that “pangolin meat is mostly bought to impress guests and demonstrate social class.”

Pangolin trafficking takes a toll. Four of the world’s eight pangolin species are native to Asiavi. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “red list” of threatened species lists two of them — the Indian pangolin and the Palawan pangolin — as “near threatened.” The Chinese (or Formosan) and Malayan (or Sunda) pangolins are “endangered,” meaning they face a “very high risk of extinction in the wild.”

Fanny Lai, CEO of Wildlife Reserves Singapore, reports that the pangolin genus name, Manis, derives from the ancient Roman phrase “spirit of the dead.” In 2008, Lai told attendees at a pangolin conference in Singapore that if action isn’t taken to protect remaining pangolin populations, the animal “will indeed live up to its name.”

Pangolins weren’t always in trouble, according to Nguyen Van Thai, program officer of Vietnam’s Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program. In a phone interview from his office in Cuc Phuong National Park, Nguyen told me that Vietnamese people have always used pangolins in traditional medicines but didn’t hunt them for export until the 1990s.

The report said that “pangolin meat  is mostly bought to impress guests and demonstrate social class.”

Nguyen, who has worked on pangolin conservation since 2005, said wildlife consumption trends correlate with rising standards of living in Vietnam. “Now more and more people are getting rich, so they are eating more wildlife,” he explained. “Vietnamese people think wildlife products are good for their health, even if they don’t know if it’s good or not.”

Nguyen and other experts are trying to help pangolins on several fronts. Since 2005, the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program has received 27 rescued pangolins. Nguyen said the program, which has an annual budget of less than $30,000, receives grants from such diverse sources as the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation and zoos in London, Houston, and Singapore. The CPCP rehabilitates pangolins, sends e-mail updates to Vietnam- based environmental professionals, and teaches law enforcement officers how to police the illegal wildlife trade. Meanwhile, TRAFFIC and the World Wildlife Fund run an advocacy campaign aimed at keeping pangolins and other wildlife out of Hanoi restaurants.

Major obstacles impede pangolin research and advocacy work. Nguyen said zoos struggle to keep captive pangolins because it’s difficult to source ants and termites — pangolins’ favorite entrées. And because zoos generally don’t fund long-term pangolin projects, he added, it’s difficult to raise money for research.

(When donors do fund pangolin research, the results aren’t always cheery: A December 2008 study in the journal Endangered Species Research, “Pangolins in Peril: using local hunters’ knowledge to conserve elusive species in Vietnam,” found that scientific pangolin- monitoring practices are “rarely successful,” and that not enough is known about pangolins to assess their “conservation needs.”)

Photo: Leanne CLark, Courtesy Carnivore  and PangoLin Conservation Program, Vietnam

Then there’s the allure of financial incentive. According to the 2008 survey of Vietnam’s illegal pangolin trade, “pre-market” live pangolins sell for up to $125 per kilogram, pangolin scales cost $225 per kilogram, and cooked meat typically sells for between $113 and $188 per kilogram. That’s enticing for hunters who earn as much as a year’s salary by selling a single pangolin. “Hunters are very poor, and some of them understand they’re doing a bad thing,” Nguyen Van Thai said. “But they need to do it for money.”

Another problem is cash-hungry policemen. According to Nguyen, Vietnamese law enables environmental policemen to sell confiscated pangolins. Sulma Warne, Greater Mekong Programme coordinator for TRAFFIC, said selling confiscated pangolins sends “entirely the wrong message.”

Nguyen Van Thai agrees. “It’s a problem,” he said of the rangers’ behavior. “Sometimes we send official letters, but they still don’t send us the pangolins. Sometimes the rangers prefer to sell animals rather than sending them to rescue centers.”

Three nights after my initial visit, I returned with a Vietnamese friend to the restaurant that had offered me pangolin meat.

We took our shoes off, sat at a table in the romantically lit dining room, and ordered a pangolin-free feast.

Before a waitress brought our spicy beef, fried fish, boiled cabbage, and rice wine, a friendly young manager sat down to chat. The 30-something Hanoian looked more like an IT consultant than a wildlife smuggler’s accomplice.

“Who buys your tê tê?” I asked.

“Rich people,” he said in English. “They say it makes them stronger.”

“Where do you get the animals?”

“A guy who gets them from the forest,” the manager said. “But it’s very difficult.”

“Difficult how?”

“Because tê tê isn’t accepted under the rules, I can’t buy them in the street,” he explained. “If I do, and police see, they will catch me.”

MIKE IVES is a freelance writer living in Hanoi, Vietnam, and a former staff reporter for the Vermont weekly Seven Days Newspaper.

CY DE GROAT is a Dutch-American collagist living in San Francisco. Her current obsessions are color psychology, cat language, and carrot juice. Recently, she has been finding balance through funk music and statistical analysis. Drop her a line at

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Eleven.

Mr. Oyster Goes to Washington: How an estuary became a battleground between agriculture and wilderness

April 15, 2010

interview by Marissa Guggiana
photo by Julio Duffoo
This article originally appeared in 
Meatpaper Issue Eleven.

Photo (Above): Drake’s Estero, Point Reyes National Seashore by Julio Duffoo.

Kevin and Nancy Lunny are third-generation cattle ranchers who decided to buy their neighbors’ oyster farm when the neighbors retired. The farm is in Point Reyes National Seashore and their landlords have become disenchanted with the aquacultural residents. The debate has enthralled Marin County and is front page news. There are two sides, as most debates are constructed. This is one side, the meat side. 

What made you want to become oyster farmers? 

NANCY LUNNY: When we adopted triplets in 1988, we decided there’s no way this little beef ranch could support my in-laws and our whole family.

How long have oysters been in Drake’s Estero? 

NL: Oysters have been harvested in the Estero for at least 80 years commercially, and before that the Coastal Miwok had been managing the oyster for millennia. The Native Americans knew there were baby oysters on the shell of an already established oyster. How they knew that is just beyond me. So they would scrape the shell and throw it back in the water. That would manage the population. When the Europeans settled, they didn’t realize you have to replant and so they decimated the native populations. Now everyone farms the Pacific oyster, from Japan, instead of the native Olympia.

How are oysters farmed?

NL: There are two ways. There’s dredging and there’s the way the Johnsons did it, which is called hanging culture. Less than 5% of the nation’s oysters are grown off-bottom, which is how we do it. It is also much more labor-intensive. It’s a wonderful, environmentally benign way of raising oysters, but it is expensive. Charlie Johnson discovered the technique when he went to Japan to buy oysters. All the oyster farms had a buyer then that would travel to Japan. He adopted it because of the predation problem in the Estero with bat rays. Most oysters grow on the bottom. On the hanging racks, the bat rays can bump into them, but they are protected.

Because we’re the state’s last operating cannery, that means we have shells because we’re shucking oysters. We punch a hole in the curved side of the shell, and that basically becomes a placeholder for new oysters to grow on. An oyster starts as a swimming larva, and you can see a white cloud where they are swimming, trying to find a hard substrate to land and grow out the rest of their lives.

The larva drops its swimming foot and its cilia, and wherever it lands, that’s where that larva grows its own shell on the placeholder shell. Then you have a cluster of 10-plus oysters, almost like an oyster sculpture. Eighteen months later, you break off the outside ones to sell as singles. anything that’s stuck together goes to the cannery, and that gets opened and put in jars.

Maybe 10% are sold in the jars. It’s very labor intensive. But who wants to let go of the last of something? You do it because it means something to a lot of people, even if it’s not the majority of people.

There’s an 80-year-old man that comes every Saturday for his oysters that his wife cooks up for him. It’s tradition.

KEVIN LUNNY: From a food-producing standpoint, this is totally amazing. There’s no feed, no fertilizer, no fossil fuel use. We would need 30,000–50,000 acres of grassland to produce the same amount of protein we produce in the 1,060-acre estuary. We don’t need fresh water.

How many oysters do you harvest every day?

KL: On a busy day, usually before a holiday weekend, we’ll do 100,000 oysters. The coolest thing about shellfish is that, say we harvest 100,000 oysters and we put them in the walk-in, and then if we only sell half that, we can put them right back in the water and they start pumping away and they’re happy as can be. It gives us a lot of flexibility.

Tell me about your conflict with the Park Service.

KL: This is an overwhelming issue in our lives. We are farming oysters in the middle of the pastoral zone of the Point Reyes National Seashore. In 2012, our lease is up for renewal, and there is a small faction in the Park Service who don’t want us in the Seashore. Twenty percent of Marin County’s income is from agriculture in the National Seashore. Drake’s Estero has been California’s largest shellfish production for most of the last 100 years, and we produce 40% of the state’s oysters.

In 1976, Congress passed the Point Reyes Wilderness Act recognizing Drake’s Estero as “potential wilderness” because of its ecological values. Now the park is looking at that document and saying the oyster farm must go.

The park said we were doing catastrophic damage to the sediment, the fish composition and density, the eel grass, and most profoundly, that we had caused an 80% decline in the harbor seal population. We were horrified. Our Marin County Board of Supervisors saw the debate going on, and they offered to do a scientific review. The park wouldn’t allow it. So Marin County asked a resident who is president of the Life Sciences Board of the National Academy of Sciences to look at their data and see if it supported their claims. He did it as a favor. He said they don’t have any data to support the claims, and when I ask them for more data, they won’t give it to us. He said he had never met a scientist who won’t give you data.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, top staff at the Department of Fish and Game, top staff at the Coastal Commission, the director and deputy director of the Park Service, the inspector general of the Department of the Interior, Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, and the Marine Mammal Center have all been involved in a decision-making process that has yet to yield a decision.

KL: It has cost us a small fortune in legal and consulting fees. It’s rocking DC because policy goals are driving science instead of good science driving policy. We want to put this behind us. The report will be out in June. And we have no idea what the Interior is going to do. We are going to keep planting. If we don’t, we’re writing our own death certificate. Agriculture and environment are not mutually exclusive. They can work beautifully together and they have for millennia. That’s the Reader’s Digest version; it would take three weeks to tell you the whole thing.

Oysters have been harvested in the Estero for at least 80 years commercially, and before that, the Coastal Miwok had been managing the oyster for millennia.

MARISSA GUGGIANA is the author of a love letter to America’s butchers called Primal Cuts.

JULIO DUFFOO was born in Peru, was raised in Brooklyn, and is now based in San Francisco. He has photographed people who spend their lives engaged with meat for every issue of Meatpaper since Issue One.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Eleven.


The Global Tacoshed: Do you know where your taco comes from?

April 15, 2010

story and graphics by John Bela, Teresa Aguilera,  Annelise Aldrich & Rachael Yu
This article originally appeared in 
Meatpaper Issue Eleven.

Click on the images below to view full diagrams:

LAST FALL, a group of California College of the Arts architecture students, led by CCA architecture faculty David Fletcher (Fletcher Studio) and John Bela (Rebar), shared a meal together at a local taco truck for a class assignment as part of a research seminar exploring San Francisco’s food- and waste-sheds. Our premise was that a seemingly simple, familiar food like the taco truck taco could provide visceral insight into the connections between the systems we were exploring. By thoroughly learning the process of formation and life cycle of a conventional taco, we would be better able to propose and design a speculative model of a holistic and sustainable urban future.

Students were divided into teams to research specific taco ingredients that appeared in our meal: corn and flour for tortillas; beef and chicken; onion, tomato, avocado, cilantro, lime; oil used for the griddle; cooking propane; aluminum foil; paper; and salt.

Our goal was not to know the origin of just any beans but the provenance of the specific ingredients in the food we ate. Where were the tomatoes grown that ended up in the fresh salsa? Who handled the shredded lettuce that covered the cheese and meat? From what waters or by what chemical process did the salt originate? What happened to the aluminum foil from the wrapper we discarded on campus?

What resulted was a richly complex network of systems, flows, and ecologies that we call the global Tacoshed, illustrated in the maps published here.

Our exploration of a typical San Francisco tacoshed gave us insight into the challenge of locavorism. Given the current extent of global food production and distribution systems, we began to consider how to envision a new tacoshed defined not by an impossibly arbitrary geographic boundary but instead by a global network of food producers that share similar values about sustainable land use, respectful treatment of workers, and care for the food we consume.

The Tacoshed project represents work by CCA architecture faculty David Fletcher (Fletcher Studio) and John Bela (Rebar) with the students of the Brave New Ecologies course taught in the Fall of 2009. This research project is part of URBANlab, an innovative curriculum component of the California College of the Arts Architecture Program (Ila Berman, Director). Final maps and graphics were created by CCA students Rachael Yu and Annelise Aldrich, Teresa Aguilera (Rebar), and Fletcher Studio.

TERESA AGUILERA is a graphic designer. She nurses a passion for information and local food, and enjoys bringing order, clarity, and whimsy to spaces both flat and dimensional.

ANNELISE ALDRICH and RACHAEL YU attended California College of the Arts. They were part of the Brave New Ecologies Seminar in fall 2009. Annelise is interested in the ecological systems of urban environments. Rachael is driven to understand the invisible forces that work to shape our world.

JOHN BELA is an artist, designer, and teacher based in San Francisco, where he co-directs Rebar. John’s family owns and operates a 160-acre CSA in rural Kentucky that supplies a diverse range of biodynamic produce, meat, and dairy to 80 families.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Eleven.


Eating the Thing That Sings: A rough guide to music about plucking

April 15, 2010

by Heather Smith

YOU MAY FIND YOURSELF  humming it occasionally. You probably know at least a few of the words. What you haven’t realized is that this most recognizable and hummable French ditty is actually a folksong about plucking the feathers from a dead songbird. Why would you? It’s in French.

The origins of Alouette are shrouded in mystery and ethnomusicological dispute. It is sung in France. It is sung in Canada. Whatever its origins, it was dispersed through North America by French Canadian fur trappers, who would sing it not because they felt like they had something to say to a bird corpse, but because they needed a song to help them match their oarstrokes to each other as they paddled through the continent’s rivers looking for beaver.

The song, which involves the singer crooning about which body parts the singer intends to defeather next, is used today primarily for the purpose of teaching French Canadian schoolchildren the names of their own body parts. Subliminally, it also serves a more devious purpose: to convince those English-speaking people who actually bother to learn what the words mean that the French really, really like to kill songbirds.

Which they do. The most notorious is the ortolan, an endangered bird about the size of a child’s fist. François Mitterrand famously asked one to be prepared for him right before he died of cancer. The tiny birds are caught in the woods by illegal trappers (animal rights activists prowl the same woods looking for trapped ortolans to set free) and sold on the black market for $180 apiece. The ortolan is fattened on millet, drowned in armagnac, then plucked, cooked, and eaten whole, with a napkin over one’s head. The delicate bones are rumored to have the taste and consistency of hazelnuts. The napkin is meant both to trap the aroma of the bird and symbolically to conceal the greed of the diner from God. Because if there’s one time that a supreme, all-seeing deity can’t see what you’re doing, it’s when you’ve got a napkin on your head.

But really, we all like to eat songbirds. Because once you start looking, almost everything is a songbird. Taxonomically speaking, if you are a bird, as long as you use the syrinx — the bone at the bottom of your throat that functions somewhat the way the human trachea does — to communicate who you are, and where you are (instead of just saying “Look! A hawk!”), then you are a songbird. A crow is a songbird. It’s just that most people don’t like that particular song.

Birds learn to sing the way that humans learn to speak — first by babbling, then by synthesizing the sounds they hear into coherent music. Songbirds have been known to resolve conflict by singing the same song back and forth to each other until the two renditions are nearly identical. And there are rumors that we may have learned to sing from the birds — singing their own songs back to them. Perhaps out of curiosity, but more likely with the hope and intention of distracting them long enough to catch, pluck, and eat them.

This most recognizable and hummable French ditty is actually a folksong about plucking the feathers from  a dead songbird.

HEATHER SMITH is a Meatpaper editor. She is currently at work on a book about insects, humans, and the various misunderstandings that arise between them.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Eleven.

The Fish Taco Farm: An experiment in urban aquaponics

April 15, 2010

story by Heather Smith
diagram by Materials & Applications
This article originally appeared in 
Meatpaper Issue Eleven.

Click the thumbnail below to view full diagram:


WHAT DOES IT MEAN to try and grow your own fish tacos in an outdoor exhibition space? It means a new kind of farming: one based on experimentation instead of economic viability. It means functionality can be compromised for the sake of concept. It means success and failure can coexist without detriment. Which is good, because you can expect a lot of failure.

The experiment was carried out by Materials & Applications (M&A), a nonprofit space in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. M&A focuses on the intersection of art and landscape. One founder, Jenna Didier, designs fountains. The other, Oliver Hess, works in something that is described on their website as  “visualization and mechanization.”

A group of volunteers spent two months developing a Vietnamese aquaculture-style rainwater-fed fish and vegetable farm. They used basic, off-the-shelf components and repurposed materials that were discovered in and around the courtyard. The aim was to create a classic aquaponic system: one in which the fish waste provides nutrient-rich water for the plants, and the plants in return provide clean, filtered water for the fish. A principal goal was to experiment until arriving at a system that could be implemented in any neighborhood at any economic level, something that would permit individuals and organizations to better sustain their own nutritional needs, while creating habitat for native birds, butterflies, and dragonflies. The project was called “Back to Basics.”

There were problems right away. The fish pond leaked. “Leaking” turned out to be a vital component of the Vietnamese system — an additional water filtration mechanism. But Vietnam has enough rainwater to replenish such a system, and Los Angeles doesn’t, so the pool needed to be sealed. Attempts to purchase large quantities of live tilapia sparked suspicion on the part of a local tilapia farmer that the artists were actually planning to start a competing farm, so he would only sell them 40 fish, rather than the 400 that they asked for. The taco vegetables — lettuce, onions, peppers, and tomatoes — never grew especially well. But wildlife was attracted to the habitat, so much so that a dome made of steamed bamboo was added to the top of the pond to keep raccoons and neighborhood cats from eating all of the tilapia.

The culmination of this experiment in hyper-local taco farming occurred during a gallery night in Silver Lake. M&A planned a taco party, and invited the public to attend and witness the fish and vegetable harvest. At the time of the event, only two tilapia had grown to a sufficient size to be used in tacos, so 58 pounds of additional adult tilapia were purchased from the same tilapia farmer who had been worried about the possibility of a competing business. Witnessing the act of catching and killing a fish for dinner was, surprisingly, horrifying to many attendees. They had come for art, and for tacos, but were not expecting to be confronted with the full story of how a fish taco is made. “These were not hipsters who believed in what we were doing,” said Hess. “These were gallery rats. The audience was totally enraptured by how horrified it was.”

At the end of the party, the surviving tilapia were placed into an aquarium inside a conference room, where they continue to live on, decoratively.

What was M&A left with? Among the lessons: Building a food system and its processes firsthand sheds new light on eating and just how deeply strange it is. No matter how much you design something, there is an infinitude of little surprises. And finally: Tilapia make surprisingly good pets.

HEATHER SMITH lives in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Every night, she goes out to scavenge coins that tourists have thrown in the fountain. She is currently working on a book about insects, humans, and the various misunderstandings that arise between them.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Eleven.

Another Meatless Monday: The fight to bring variety to Baltimore school lunches

April 15, 2010

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

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.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Eleven.