Implementing Meatless Monday in School
and University Foodservice Operations
By Hadley Turner
With government food, nutrition, and health programs constantly at risk of being cut from the federal budget, there’s never been a more important time for health initiatives and education to come from private organizations. The Monday Campaigns is a nonprofit organization behind a variety of health initiatives that encourage the public to reduce stress, move more, eat more healthfully, and quit smoking, but likely their best-known initiative is Meatless Monday, a campaign that encourages individuals to go meatless one day per week. But Meatless Monday isn’t confined to only the home dinner table; foodservice facilities such as schools and hospitals have implemented Meatless Monday programs as well.
This past spring, the Meatless Monday campaign released updated versions of their Meatless Monday Implementation Guides for K-12 schools and college and university foodservice programs. The guides provide full instructions and materials for foodservice professionals who want to begin and promote Meatless Monday programs at their schools.
What Is Meatless Monday?
The program encourages consumers to skip meat one day per week to reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, to which meat consumption has been linked, and to improve the health of the planet by reducing water consumption and pollution. It was founded in 2003 by Sid Lerner in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and has established itself worldwide, with programs in at least two countries on every continent (except Antarctica, of course—those penguins need their fish!).
Becky Ramsing, MPH, RD, senior program officer of the food communities and public health program at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future (part of the Bloomberg School), serves as a scientific advisor for the Meatless Monday Program. She and other staff at the Center for a Livable Future work with the Meatless Monday campaign to help the campaign build their evidence base to further enhance their promotion of plant-based diets. Ramsing emphasizes Meatless Monday’s impact on the health of consumers, the planet, and animals alike.
When the Meatless Monday campaign began, the Center “had been addressing animal production issues, and [Meatless Monday] was an attempt to ask, ‘What are we doing about consumption of animal products?’” she says. This thinking was a major impetus for Meatless Monday’s rollout.
Going meatless one day per week “is a really easy, doable first step for people, especially if they’ve never thought about eating vegetarian or changing their eating habits,” Ramsing says. “People feel as though they can do it,” and thus it’s an effective tool on a public health scale, she says.
The new guides are updated to reflect feedback from school foodservice staff about their Meatless Monday experiences. Ramsing and her colleagues at the Center for a Livable Future interviewed foodservice managers at different sites (mostly universities) and conducted online surveys of companies such as Sodexo and Aramark. Foodservice managers were asked about “implementing Meatless Monday … what challenges they had, what they did differently, the impact they had,” Ramsing says. “We developed a best practice guide and a report, which was used in the new implementation guide.”
The guides pitch Meatless Monday as a way to help increase student fruit and vegetable consumption (with the K-12 guide citing the National School Lunch Program standards) while keeping meat on the menu for students who prefer it. Both the K-12 and college/university guides contain a step-by-step guide to implementing Meatless Monday, with mini-guides within geared toward foodservice operations managers, marketing staff, and culinary employees so foodservice staff can work together to plan meatless meals, promote Meatless Monday, and get their colleagues on board. These sections of the guide include a sample letter to colleagues; meatless menu ideas (featuring dishes such as vegetable lasagna, tofu and vegetable stir-fry, black or red beans with rice, chickenless Caesar salad wrap, and Portobello stuffed with wild rice); examples of marketing materials, which are available for free from the Meatless Monday campaign; easy meatless culinary swaps; and tips for training staff. The guide also outlines the benefits of incorporating Meatless Monday into a school foodservice program, such as reducing environmental impact, promoting healthful eating habits, saving money, meeting growing demand for plant-based dishes, and demonstrating commitment to students’ health.
The K-12 guide reminds culinary managers that the National School Lunch Program permits many foods to be used as meat alternatives, including beans and lentils, dairy or soy yogurt, tofu, nut and seed butters, and eggs. Inside is a link to the Meatless Monday K-12 cookbook, Meatless Monday Goes to School, which features recipes with fun names such as The Whole Enchilada, Shanghai Sweet and Spicy Spaghetti, Harvest Lasagna, Taco-the-Town, and Power Salad. These creative names could make potentially unfamiliar meals appealing to younger children. The guide also includes posters with fun facts about animal protein’s environmental impact for use in the classroom.
The college and university guide is similar to the K-12 guide but includes suggestions for getting campus organizations on board. Student groups that focus on sustainability or animal welfare, the guide says, are good ambassadors to help promote Meatless Monday. The guide also points out that Meatless Monday is especially likely to take hold on college campuses, as college students are increasingly health conscious and concerned about environmental, animal, and natural food issues.
Roles for RDs
Whether counseling individuals or working on behalf of a foodservice operation, Ramsing believes Meatless Monday is something all RDs can encourage. While the campaign’s focus is on meat reduction, she says this often leads to “other healthful, sustainable choices, such as [opting for] more beans, pulses, nuts, grains, and vegetables. It’s an educational opportunity” about the benefits of these foods. She adds that suggesting Meatless Monday to clients is an easy way to spark conversations about sustainability within dietetics practice.
RDs in foodservice can take the initiative and use the variety of implementation guides the Meatless Monday campaign offers to encourage Meatless Monday programs where they work. In addition to the university and college and K-12 guides, there are guides for hospitals, corporations, restaurants, and general foodservice operations.
Ramsing adds that having RDs behind Meatless Monday programs in foodservice adds credibility, often making these initiatives more appealing to diners. “Especially in college foodservice settings where you have student athletes who want their chicken breasts,” dietitians can promote the idea “that you can get enough protein and perform very well without animal products,” she says. (One of the campaign’s promotional posters available to download has a picture of two kidney beans on either side of a barbell and says, “Go Meatless Monday and pack plenty of protein.”)
In addition, RDs typically are abreast of current food trends and more aware of a diverse array of foods and dishes, which can help foodservice meal planners innovate their menus to make plant-based meals appeal to students and diners. “There’s really a lot of good food out there right now. Something we found in our qualitative interviews is that if it tastes good, people don’t really care if there’s meat in it,” Ramsing says. She adds, “If you get the foodservice staff and the cooks involved” and have them experience how good the food is, “they’ll promote it as well.
“When foodservice operations do this right, students can really enjoy it,” Ramsing says. “This is something RDs can really get behind.”
Free downloadable resources for encouraging Meatless Monday in any RD’s setting can be found at www.meatlessmonday.com/free-resources.
— Hadley Turner is an editorial assistant for Today’s Dietitian.