'Meatless Mondays' in schools could help combat obesity epidemic
by Lou Ryan
Philadelphia’s children and teens are facing ever-rising rates of obesity, and the school lunch program could be part of the problem. That’s why the Humane League, a nonprofit animal advocacy organization, is encouraging the School District to implement Meatless Monday.
By providing meatless meals to children just one day a week, the District could not only reduce its students’ risk of developing obesity and other chronic diseases, but also improve environmental sustainability.
The Johns Hopkins School of Public Health began promoting Meatless Mondays in 2003 as a public health initiative. Philadelphia joined the growing number of municipalities endorsing the program on Oct. 17, 2013, when City Council unanimously passed a resolution encouraging its residents to participate.
The resolution recognizes the benefits of a diet high in fruits and vegetables, which can help combat Philadelphia’s obesity epidemic by reducing saturated fat intake. One study from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health illustrates that diets that promote meat consumption might increase the risk for obesity. Another study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concludes that a plant-based diet is a sensible approach for preventing obesity in children. These are among the many studies confirming that people who consume fewer animal products have lower body mass indices than those whose diets include meat, dairy, and eggs.
Meat isn’t the only threat to our children’s health. Cheese is also extremely high in saturated fat. In fact, cheese is the leading source of saturated fat in the American diet, which has led the Center for Science in the Public Interest to advise cutting back. At a time when Philadelphia’s teenage obesity rate is 4.3 percent above the national average, the highest of the 10 largest cities in the United States, it is more crucial than ever to reduce the amount of fat in children’s diet by helping them cut down on cheese.
In addition to providing healthier meals for our children, Meatless Monday can help reduce the School District’s carbon footprint. According to the United Nations, intensive animal agriculture is the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions, releasing high amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide into the air. The livestock sector is also one of the single largest sources of water pollution and land degradation. There is no better way to achieve Mayor Nutter’s goal of making Philadelphia the greenest city in America than to reduce its residents’ meat consumption.
Appealing, protein-rich replacements for meat-based dishes include affordable dishes such as hearty vegetable chili and black bean burritos. Going meat-free just once a week gives students the opportunity to discover new favorites while learning about the countless benefits of a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
How do the students feel about being served plant-based dishes? A study in the Florida Public Health Review offered vegan menu options at two schools alongside popular dishes such as pepperoni pizza, cheeseburgers, and chicken nuggets. The majority of students at both schools chose the vegan option when it was offered. In addition, kitchen staff deemed the vegan foods easy to prepare.
Numerous school districts across the country, including Los Angeles Unified School District, Detroit Public Schools, and San Diego Unified School District, already participate in the program. To get the School District of Philadelphia on board, all that is needed is a larger push from Philadelphia residents. The District is now in the middle of contract negotiations, making this the best time to make a change that will positively impact our children’s lives.
Please visit PhillyMeatlessMonday.com to learn more and to sign the petition urging the School District of Philadelphia to join cities around the country in implementing Meatless Monday.
Humane League intern Lou Ryan is a full-time student and activist. She currently studies professional writing at Kutztown University, where she has written a number of health-related articles for the student-run newspaper The Keystone.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.