Starting next school year, New York City's public school cafeterias will not serve meat on Mondays. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced (appropriately, on Monday) that the district's 1.1 million students must eat vegetarian or vegan for one day a week, as part of a national campaign aimed at improving public health and reducing agriculture's carbon footprint.
"Cutting back on meat a little will improve New Yorkers' health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions," de Blasio said in a statement. "We're expanding Meatless Mondays to all public schools to keep our lunch and planet green for generations to come."
The district tested the program in 15 Brooklyn schools and found it would not cost anything. More than that, officials say, the students liked it. This isn't too surprising: Vegan and vegetarian diets are more common among young people than most other age groups in the United States. In adapting to their needs, the Meatless Monday campaign has done what federal nutrition policy has not: The National School Lunch Program serves 30.4 million students across the U.S., and yet the government nutritionists whose work sets the menu do not suggest cutting out red meat entirely—even for a day.
Adjusting Federal Rules
The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets nutritional standards for school lunches and breakfasts. The specifics range from quantifying vegetable "subgroups" (with very scientific names like "dark green" and "orange") to allotted amounts of protein. Although the meat industry has a strong hold on the federal dietary guidelines, which inform these rules, the agency has allowed schools to incorporate meat substitutes—but not always as quickly as some students would like. The Food and Nutrition Service's rules first allowed schools to serve "commercially prepared" tofu in school lunches and breakfasts in 2012, for example.
The federal rules require districts to serve at least two ounces of meat or meat substitute daily. The USDA has also acknowledged the need to allow "schools to diversify the sources of protein available to students and better meet the dietary needs of vegetarians and culturally diverse groups in schools." And so, school districts actually have a lot of discretion—as long as they meet those requirements.
Winning the War (Against Climate Change)
The "Meatless Monday" campaign started as a World War I and II mandate: Eat less meat, the USDA promised, and "food will win the war." In 2003, a non-governmental organization took up the slogan, working to shape U.S. nutrition policy in schools, corporations, and restaurants. Its goals are no longer patriotic, but focus instead on public health and environmental impact.
On its website, Meatless Monday has already highlighted New York City's accomplishment. The district is not the first to adopt the policy, but it is the largest. In recent years, 95 districts in the Northeast and schools in Los Angeles and Sarasota, Florida, have also adopted the program. "We believe Monday is the day all health breaks loose," the organization's website says. "Research shows that Monday is the perfect day to make small, positive changes." Whether or not you subscribe to this belief, there is plenty of evidence that large-scale meat production, as it exists in America, is harming the Earth.
Will Meatless Monday Change Anything?
In many cases, the push for Meatless Mondays came from students, who already had vegetarian and vegan options in their school lunches. In Sarasota, eight registered dietitians helped create new recipes and products to fill the gap. Researchers at Columbia University found the program has also been successful in cities like Los Angeles thanks to the efforts of grassroots campaigns (and a little help from the mayor and Oprah Winfrey.)
Between New York City and L.A., 1.7 million students will forgo meat one day a week. But will that mean anything on a larger scale? Food systems don't start or end with the scoop of Salisbury steak on your tray at school, but new analysis from Oxford University researchers suggests animal products (meat, aquaculture, eggs, and dairy) use 83 percent of farmland and contribute 58 percent of agriculture's greenhouse gas emissions—despite providing just about one-third of the country's protein intake.
So should we improve production, or reduce consumption? While sustainable agriculture plays a role, the authors write, "We find that the impacts of the lowest-impact animal products exceed average impacts of substitute vegetable proteins." In other words, plant-based foods are more sustainable almost any way you measure—meaning that, even if it can't fix the planet, a little tofu on Mondays won't hurt.