With the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) now joining other districts around the country in implementing Meatless Mondays — which will be required in all of the city's schools this fall — leaders in other systems are likely considering whether it’s a practice that also makes sense for their schools.
Promoted by animal activist groups and portrayed as political brainwashing by meat industry organizations, the move can attract criticism from various angles — as if school lunches weren’t already controversial with topics such as lunch shaming and offering chocolate milk among the hotly debated issues in recent years.
In 2014, Todd Staples, then-commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture, published a commentary saying that it’s fine if people want to replace meat in their meals once a week, but that it’s wrong to “force such an agenda-driven diet on anyone who has not chosen such a diet — especially our school children.” Those in favor of meat-free options at school attributed his stance to connections to the cattle industry, and since then, the number of districts going meatless on Mondays has continued to grow.
In the School Nutrition Association’s 2018 report on school nutrition operations, more than half of the 1,550 respondents from districts throughout the country — 56.5% — say their districts offer vegetarian meals, while they might not necessarily be on Mondays. In addition, 13.9% offer vegan meal options.
And according to Meatless Mondays, an advocacy organization, roughly 150 school districts nationwide, as well as dozens of charter and independent schools, are participating. California districts and many in the Northeast have been the most active participants, while almost no schools in the Midwest or mountain region, other than Colorado, are involved.
Reasons behind the campaign
In the NYC schools, the expansion of Meatless Mondays from a 15-school pilot to the whole district is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s sustainability initiative. “Meatless Mondays will introduce hundreds of thousands of young New Yorkers to the idea that small changes in their diet can create larger changes for their health and the health of our planet,” Mark Chambers, director of the mayor’s office’s Office of Sustainability, said in a statement.
But most people emphasize the health benefits. With limited time to eat at school, most students eat the entrée first, Sarah Irvine Belson, an associate professor of education and executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Education at American University in Washington who has studied food consumption — as well as what gets dumped in the trash — said in an interview.
Replacing that item with a plant-based protein, she said, can ensure that students are consuming more fruits and vegetables — which was the goal of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 2012 standards for school meals.
Suzanne Dixon, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant, says a meat-free day can expand students’ palettes. The key, she said in an email, is that the menu options have to be “high-quality, well-prepared … and fresh.”
“Any meal prepared with mediocre ingredients and a bad recipe is not going to be good or helpful, but this is especially true when trying to get kids to eat something healthy,” she said.
In fact, one of the biggest challenges Meatless Mondays highlights in a report on implementation in a variety of food service settings, conducted by the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University, is getting chefs and food service personnel to work together to plan creative meals. “One can’t just throw in tofu and expect customers to like it,” the authors wrote.
But Dixon added that many so-called “kid-friendly” entrees such as tacos, burritos, pizza, soup and chili can be “easily converted to a meatless meal or dish.”
The National School Lunch Program already requires that schools provide meat alternatives, such as beans, cheese or eggs. Some parents have raised concerns over the amount of cheese being offered in school lunches as the alternative, but Belson added that by using whole-grain pasta or whole-grain bread for a grilled cheese “you can sneak in more nutrients than you can on a chicken nugget” and help to eliminate some of the processed foods from students’ diets.
Becky Ramsing, a senior program officer with the Center for a Livable Future — as well as a scientific adviser to Meatless Mondays — says participating in the effort doesn’t actually require that schools remove all meat from the menu on that day. She recommends that school food staff members promote the meat-free option as the daily special and provide information on the related health benefits, but still have a meat option as well.
That’s what Whitsons Culinary Group did when it implemented the practice in 100 school districts in the Northeast, said Ramsing, who is currently evaluating data from the program. So far, she said, the districts don’t see a decrease in students eating school lunches on those days.
Whitsons also provided training for food service personnel in advance of implementation, Ramsing said, adding that districts considering the change should take time to educate staff members about other sources of protein and have them sample foods.
Baltimore City Public Schools did see a decline in lunch sales after implementing Meatless Mondays in 2009. That was one of the reasons, in addition to a change in leadership, that they dropped the official program and instead decided to implement a meatless option every school day, Ramsing said. She added that she’s learned from working with other food service programs that participation in general is often lower on Mondays, perhaps because students are more likely to be absent on those days.
‘Kids are pretty clear’
The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has participated in the Meatless Mondays campaign for several years. The program has been largely successful, and there was little pushback from students and families, Manish Singh, interim food service director for the district, said in an interview. The district also offers vegan options at 82 schools, but Singh said the uptake on those items is still pretty low, and that at this point the idea might resonate more with parents than their children.
“Kids are pretty clear on what they want,” he said. “Over a period of time there will be growing demand.”
To even reach the menu, however, new dishes have to go through an extensive testing process that involves first being approved by food service supervisors and then going before a panel of student testers. Students have to give the item at least an 80% rating — up from 75% in past years. After that, the item is introduced in only a few schools at a time.
The San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), which began Meatless Mondays in the 2013-14 school year, holds an annual recipe contest and has asked students to submit meatless entries. "This year, we are asking students to create plant-based recipes and will be placing the winning recipe on the menu next year," Gary Petill, the director of Food Services for the district, said in an email, adding that getting students "involved in shaping the menu," is part of maintaining their support. Overall, 28% of the more than 24 million meals the district serves each year are vegetarian, he said.
In LAUSD, Singh notices that sales are slightly down on Mondays — roughly 10% — and that there really isn’t a cost savings for the district. Petill in SDUSD agrees. "We still have to meet the nutrition requirements for the meat/meat-alternate category and often times vegetarian alternatives for that protein source are more expensive," he said, but added that the district can offset some of that cost through USDA commodity pricing for items such as cheese.
The Center for a Livable Future report also found that Meatless Monday programs might lower costs only slightly, or not at all.
While LAUSD has been strictly vegetarian on Mondays since beginning the program, the question of whether to also offer a meat item on those days has been raised a few times, especially in relation to students in poverty or experiencing homelessness who might receive most of their meals at school.
“That is information we are reviewing right now,” Singh said.