Meatless Monday, revisited

A year ago, I invited Ms. Elizabeth Puccini from NYC Green Schools to guest blog about Meatless Monday. At first I was concerned that “meatless” meant gooey processed cheese like I ate frequently last year. But I learned that there was way more to “meatless” than that. I invited her to share her perspective once again.

EDUCATION: WE WON’T SEE CHANGE WITHOUT IT
By Elizabeth Puccini

I used to think access to healthy, nutritious meals in our schools was a food justice issue with parallels to the civil rights movement: you were either on the morally right side of the issue or the wrong. I’ve since learned that, unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. With the civil rights movement, African-Americans didn’t need to be told segregation was wrong: they felt the stigma of being treated like second-class citizens and understood it as an affront to their humanity. It was consequently easy to mobilize people and ignite a movement. Not so with the food justice movement. Although nothing less than our children’s health is at stake, most Americans don’t understand that the food they are eating is making them sick and will cut years off their life. Education, which takes time and effort, is desperately needed if we are going to reverse the rising rates of obesity and other chronic diseases in our children.

I came to understand how important a component education is to the school food movement when my partner Anisa Romero and I started to promote Meatless Monday in New York City schools. As I wrote last year, our children’s schools were the first in New York City to serve only plant-based meals on Monday back in October of 2009, a policy we implemented, as members of our Wellness Committee, after seeing all the meat and cheese-based meals that were being served to our children for lunch. Since then, Anisa and I decided to make Meatless Monday our health initiative in schools, because we saw the movement as a great opportunity to start educating kids about the health and environmental consequences of the food they are eating. Our visit to Validus Preparatory Academy in the Bronx, a public high-school “dedicated to academics, health and fitness” serving over 400 students, drove home to us how necessary it is to give kids the information they need to make healthy choices for themselves and our planet, because tragically enough, they are not receiving this information at home or at school. Here are some of the facts we shared with the students at Validus, which they were hearing for the first time:

  • Today’s children are the first generation of Americans expected to live shorter lives than their parents as a direct result of the food they eat.
  • Of the children born in 2000, 1 in 3 will develop diabetes in their lifetime. For Hispanic and African-American children the odds are closer to 1 in 2.
  • Americans consume 45% more meat than the USDA recommends.
  • We also eat an average of 33 pounds of cheese a year, 3 times more cheese than what people were eating in the 1970s.
  • Animal protein, in the form of meat and cheese, is the primary source of saturated fat which raises the level of cholesterol in your blood thereby increasing your risk of heart disease.

As we rolled out these statistics, I could literally see the students’ faces drop with a combination of horror and shock. I thought to myself, how is it possible that high-school students are hearing these statistics for the first time? It was obvious they didn’t remotely suspect how large an impact the food they were eating could have on their health. They were also scrabbling to understand how their parents and schools could regularly feed them the kinds of food that contribute to disease. Compounding their astonishment was an observation by their PTA President, who was a nurse by profession, who said that the majority of patients they see now in the ICU are people in their 40s and 50s with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, hypertension and heart failure, as a result of being obese.

No wonder the class looked like a herd of deer caught in a semitruck’s blazing headlights. Everyone was failing them: their government, schools, communities and families. As an Italian-American, I understand food is a complex issue with deep emotional and cultural associations for people. However, we fail our children when we don’t arm them with the information they need to make better choices for themselves so they can live long, healthy, and fulfilling lives.

Since we’re not likely to see a federally-mandated nutrition curriculum anytime soon, we at NYC Green Schools have spent the last few months putting together a power-point presentation that we can bring to middle and high-school students called “Food Matters” that explains, through statistics, photographs and animation, the health and environmental consequences of the food we are eating. The presentation offers Meatless Monday as a simple way to start eating more cholesterol-free foods that are rich in nutrients and low in calories, like vegetables and whole grains, by eliminating animal foods just one day a week. We’re hoping to bring the presentation to schools starting in May. If you’re interested in starting Meatless Monday at your school, go to NYCGreenSchools.org and click on “Meatless Monday Movement”; you can also find out more about the movement at MeatlessMonday.com.

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12 Responses to Meatless Monday, revisited

  1. SuperMom-in-training April 18, 2011 at 7:46 pm #

    Keep up the great work! Our 17 year-old watched
    Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution last week and shared with me the pink slime and how ammonia is added to the "meat" to kill the bacteria, etc. I don't think he'll be eating fast food any time soon…

    Our youth are hungry for this information (pun intended) and I'm certain they are listening.

    Best health always,
    SuperMom101

  2. Megan Z. April 19, 2011 at 12:06 am #

    I love the idea of meatless Mondays! I do worry about kids with food allergies to alternative protein sources, though. Soy is a common allergy, so students with those allergies would probably have to bring their own meals that day.

    However, I would like to point out that most studies that evaluate the relationship between saturated fat and heart disease have found that the consumption of foods high in saturated fat do NOT cause heart disease. It's a common food misconception that led to kids being force-fed enormous amounts of carbohydrates. I'm afraid that Puccini didn't give any other reason for meat consumption to lead to health problems, so I don't think meatless Mondays is really a way to make kids healthier. I DO, however, think it's a more environmentally friendly approach to eating, and I like the idea of showing kids how to get protein into their systems in a variety of ways. I just don't want Meatless Mondays to become a carbo-palooza.

    I think schools need to be more concerned with the QUALITY of their meat. A lot of school cafeteria meat contains soy and other fillers. And like the other commenter said, the ammonia added to ground beef makes it unfit for human consumption, even though it's quite commonplace in cafeterias.

    I love your blog!

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  4. Lisa R. Suriano April 19, 2011 at 12:39 pm #

    NYC is doing a lot of great work to promote meatless entrees! Veggiecation recently signed on as the educational partner for the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food (http://www.healthylunches.org/). Together we are promoting a plant-based entree once to twice a week on NYC public school menus. Working with them has been so much fun! It is great to see young students' delighted surprise when they taste and discover how delicious these dishes are.

  5. Jen April 19, 2011 at 1:45 pm #

    Megan Z. is right "that the consumption of foods high in saturated fat do NOT cause heart disease". As you know, it is so hard to educate and get the truth out to people, and this assumption is one that drives me CRAZY. I absolutely cannot wait until it is completely debunked in the mainstream media. Unless it is a whole food naturally low in fat, "low fat food" is not REAL food!

    Please see the following article at Stephan Guyenet's Whole Health Source blog. He is a PhD who studies the neurobiology of body fat regulation, and has no ties to any organizations. He simply reviews medical and scientific literature, and blogs the truth.

    http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2011/01/does-dietary-saturated-fat-increase.html

    I also agree that quality meat is the answer, not processed, genetically modified corn and soy fillers and meat substitutes. Real food, including meat, is much healthier than that garbage.

  6. Krista April 20, 2011 at 7:11 pm #

    I routinely explain to my nearly 7 year old why I choose certain foods and refuse to buy others. I want him to be aware of the very simple truth that what you put into your body matters, if you eat junky chemically laden food then you will feel gross. If you eat real, whole, natural food then you will feel good. As he gets older I hope that he will continue to keep that in mind when he's faced with temptations out and about and sometimes within. My 15 year old step son's high school has vending machines that sell sweetened tea-no soda mind you but a bottle of sweetened tea is not any better. Bad food choices surround our children, we have to arm them with information to combat it.

  7. Anonymous April 21, 2011 at 1:57 am #

    Please ignore Megan Z's comment regarding saturated fat. It is well established that overabundant intake of saturated fat raises cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease.

    Visit the American Heart Association website to learn more.

    http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4582

    Loren

  8. Anonymous April 21, 2011 at 4:38 pm #

    Please ignore Loren's comment regarding saturated fat. That website only tells you what makes the fats saturated, and where these saturated fats are found. No where on that site does it explain how exactly saturated fats "raise cholesterol". Where is the evidence? The cellular science to back it up?

    Take a look at how many pre-packaged, chemical laden foods have the American Heart Association's seal of approval on them, then tell me they don't have ulterior motives. (I believe their CEO's salary is somewhere in the millions…). Let's give them some credit for the low-fat (i.e. high sugar/carbohydrate) fad that has increased diabetes and obesity.
    Kate

  9. Anonymous April 21, 2011 at 5:53 pm #

    Loren, please read Good Calories, Bad Calories which does a very good survey of the 'studies' that supposedly support the fat/cholesterol/heart disease hypothesis. It is unsupported. It's the 'low fat' 'high carbohydrate' craze that's killing Americans. You only have to look at other countries with traditional diets who are doing just fine.

  10. Mike April 21, 2011 at 10:43 pm #

    Vegetarianism can be a healthy alternative, although a diet that incorporates meat has potential to be just as healthy.

    I think it's a phenomenal eye-opener to expose kids to vegetarianism, as long as it's done thoughtfully. I revamped the diet in a youth corrections facility with several vegetarian options (my "inmates" eat better than kids at any public school I've ever seen) but I'm still weary about over-promoting vegetarianism among teenagers who often have little to no nutrition education, and high individual nutrient needs that may go unmet with a poorly planned vegetarian diet.

    No Meat Monday + companion education that covers nutrient needs and complimentary proteins would be a great initiative.

  11. Mike April 21, 2011 at 10:47 pm #

    "Cholesterol" doesn't refer to a single substance. Find a reliable answer for yourself.

    Google- saturated fat low density lipoproteins site:.edu (or something of that nature)

    Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the type of cholesterol correlated with cardiovascular disease / responsible for causing hardening of blood vessels.

    Adding site:.edu isolates your results to university pages. When in doubt look for information from research institutions or another widely known reputable source, not a .com that any Joe can register for $8/month.

  12. Get Skinny, Go Vegan. June 10, 2011 at 4:03 am #

    Read "The China Study" by Colin Campbell. Go watch "Forks & Knives".
    Kids should be meatless everyday and I feel it is a very strong disservice to children to feed them cancer causing substances. The reason meat & dairy get pushed are because of subsidies and they are pooping their pants trying to put gag orders on anyone that hints otherwise. Just ask Oprah. Follow the money trail. The kale Industry is NOT subsidized. Kids these days have heart disease & diabetes and soon they won't even have water to drink. Why? Burgers & Cheese.

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