The Rise of Meatless Monday A One-Time War Effort Becomes a Movement for Health and the Environment

In 2003, the nonprofit Meatless Monday campaign was launched with the goal of reducing meat consumption by 15%. On average, Americans consume eight ounces of meat per day—45% more than the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends. The campaign, which relies on the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future for advice, offers vegetarian recipes, social media updates on Facebook and Twitter, expert interviews and other tools and resources for schools, organizations and municipalities to promote the initiative.

In the report Livestock’s Long Shadow, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization reported that livestock production generates nearly one-fifth of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also a major factor in worldwide deforestation, habitat loss, freshwater depletion and pollution. Peggy Neu, president of Meatless Monday, says, “The focus for the first couple of years was health. Last year the movement started growing in part fueled by a growing awareness [of] the environmental impact of meat consumption.” Educational material for the campaign relates that, “Going meatless once a week can reduce your risk of chronic preventable conditions like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. It can also help limit your carbon footprint and save resources like fresh water and fossil fuel.”

In 2009, Meatless Monday went global. “There are different initiatives and projects all around the world,” Neu explains. “It really is a grassroots movement. We plant the flag and people of all shapes, sizes, beliefs and agendas are using the idea in their own way.”

So far, a slew of high-profile institutions and municipalities have adopted the meat-free-for-a-day movement including the city of Ghent, Belgium (the first European city), the Baltimore (Maryland) Public School System, Tel Aviv University, Oxford University, the City of San Francisco and over 30 college campuses around the U.S. including Harvard University and Columbia University. There are also about a dozen countries that have followed suit. Sir Paul McCartney is spearheading the celebrity-studded Meat Free Monday in the UK, Brazil’s version is Dia Sem Carne (Day Without Meat) and a Japanese group started Veggie Monday.

In December 2009, Australia became the eighth country to run the Meatless Monday campaign. Co-founders Deb Robbins and Vinita Chopra say the American and UK versions inspired them, but it was environmental concerns surrounding meat consumption that really moved them to act. “Meatless Monday Australia represents a creative, practical avenue for people around the world to help save the planet and its inhabitants,” they write via e-mail. “Not everyone can buy an eco-friendly car, some people may not have a garden, it may not be practical or safe for others to travel by public transport or on foot, but eating vegetarian meals one day a week can make a world of difference.”

Star power has also given the movement momentum. Michael Pollan, oft-quoted author of Food Rules (Penguin) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin) and narrator for the documentary Food, Inc., touted the concept on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Food Network chef Mario Batali just implemented Meatless Monday in his 14 restaurants (a bold move for a restaurateur with establishments named Bar Jamon, Carnevino and The Spotted Pig) by offering vegetarian options on his Monday menu, and over 100 blogs including The Huffington Post publish weekly veggie recipes and Meatless Monday features.

This past May, an article in The Washington Post reported that the meat industry is getting nervous. “Over the past year, lobbying groups including the American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Board and the Farm Bureau have launched a quiet campaign to try to reverse the momentum,” reported the piece. The Animal Agriculture Alliance and the American Meat Institute have railed that Baltimore schoolchildren are being denied protein—and have urged citizens not to allow Meatless Monday to spread.

But Neu says the movement is here to stay. “I want this movement to be sustainable prevention,” she says, “not just a health or environmental fad.”