Last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams have ushered in a new era for America’s cities: reducetarianism.
Piloted in 15 schools last spring, New York City’s youth will be given meat-free meals every Monday to reduce the city’s meat consumption. Says Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, “Our 1.1 million students are taking the next step towards healthier, more sustainable lives, and we should all follow suit.”
This urgently needed move is part of a national trend of cities promoting plant-based eating to combat climate change and chronic disease. Citing the need to combat colon cancer, heart disease, and obesity, the Los Angeles City Council supported “Meatless Monday” as early as 2012, and its school district quickly followed suit. The city of Berkeley, California has committed to a similar program known as “Green Monday,” whereby the city exclusively serves plant-based meals on Mondays to encourage residents to take personal responsibility for their carbon footprint.
From Michigan to Georgia, many school districts have embraced this unique call to ax meat from the menu once a week. And it’s clear that New York’s bold move was informed by other cities’ experiments. As Brooklyn Borough President Adams highlights, “By reducing meat and dairy purchases by 30 percent over a period of two years, schools in California’s Oakland Unified School District reduced their carbon footprint by 14 percent and saved $42,000 annually since meat and dairy are more expensive than most plant-based foods.”
Some skeptics of this trend toward meat-free meals worry that America’s taste preferences have not coevolved with the social consciousness of influential leaders. New York Times journalist David Gelles argues that organizations impose values by requiring a switch to plant-based options. When the reducetarian management at WeWork, a collaborative workspace company, announced that it will no longer serve meat to its employees, Gelles compared the move to telling employees how to vote.
But children are the main recipients of meals served up by cities, so the move is less imposing than it seems at face value. The theory goes that Meatless Monday will encourage greater fruit and veggie consumption over children’s lifetimes, helping them form healthful habits that combat childhood obesity.
Evidence suggests that efforts to guide children’s eating habits can achieve remarkable health progress without blowback. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 took huge steps to reduce the amount of sodium and fat served to kids in school meals. Contrary to claims by the Trump administration, which has delayed enforcement of the law, the reform substantially increased lunch program participation among kids eligible for reduced-price lunches and their veggie and fruit consumption.
Indeed, city efforts to teach students healthy and sustainable habits are especially refreshing because federally-funded advertising often leads children toward unhealthy food choices. Celebrity posters asking children Got Milk? and television mantras like Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner condition Americans to eat particular types of food without regard for health. Even the food pyramid, which guided American food choices for nearly a century, was largely a product of corporate lobbying. Dr. Walter Willett, who chairs the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, maintains that the federal employees determining dietary guidelines still defer to the economic interests of American food companies to this day, not modern nutrition science.
Other opponents of Meatless Monday see the move as a culture war, meant to spark a bigger societal shift against meat consumption. In at least one sense, they are right.
Consumer attitudes toward meat consumption have been meaningfully shifting over the past decade. A 2018 Gallup poll indicates that one in ten Americans under age 50 now consider themselves vegetarian, and a 2017 Nielsen survey suggests that four in ten are actively incorporating more plant-based meals into their diet even if they still eat meat.
The same advocates who push for Meatless Mondays at a city level have accomplished other legislative victories as well. Recent animal welfare referendums in California and Massachusetts, passed by wide margins, will soon penalize all U.S. producers that fail to meet space and cage standards for farmed animals. Underlying these seismic changes is a network of animal advocates forging relationships with environmentalists and proponents of healthy eating.
At the end of the day, more cities should follow New York’s example. Conservative estimates put livestock production’s share of greenhouse gas emissions at a staggering 15 percent, more than the entire transportation sector. And the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the largest organization of food and nutrition scientists in the U.S, maintains that plant-based meals reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other ailments killing Americans at alarming rates.
Reducing meat consumption is not just a fad. It is the right thing to do.