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For Health and the Environment, Go Meatless on Mondays

When we entered the New York City public school system back in September and first took a look at our schools’ lunch menu, we saw chicken nuggets, sweet and sour pork, hamburger, mozzarella sticks, and pizza. Every meal on the menu was either meat- or cheese-based.

We found this troubling because animal products like meat and cheese are the main source of the saturated fats that raise cholesterol levels and thereby increase the risk of heart disease. We also knew that animal production for food consumption contributes more to global climate change than all forms of transportation combined. With half of children already showing fatty streaks in their arteries, what we saw was a menu that was making our children and planet sick.

Fortunately, our schools — The Children’s Workshop School, The East Village Community School and PS 94, which share a building and a cafeteria — already had a wellness committee, and we joined. The committee brought its concern about the preponderance of meat and cheese dishes to Shawn Chambers, the Department of Education SchoolFood manager responsible for our building, and asked if we could jettison meat from the menu on Mondays. To our delight, he said yes. After we got permission from our principals, our schools in October became the first in New York City to have Meatless Mondays.

Since October, we’ve tried to expand the repertoire of meals offered on Meatless Mondays — we even had a taste test to find out which plant-based meals our students prefer. This month our Meatless Mondays feature vegetarian chili with rice, black bean burritos, African gumbo, and veggie burgers with a side of beans.  All these meals are cooked with fresh ingredients in our school kitchen. We are tremendously thankful to Shawn Chambers, our SchoolFood Manager; Marianny Abreu, our kitchen supervisor; and the dedicated cooks in our kitchen. Without them, and without our building’s working school kitchen (something of a rarity in in the city), Meatless Mondays would not be possible.

The Baltimore (Md.) City Public Schools, which serves 80,000 students a day, already participates in Meatless Mondays, joining an international movement of individuals, organizations and cities making the commitment to lower meat consumption and enjoy a plant-based diet on Monday. Our desire is to see New York City become the next public school system to join this campaign, so that all the city’s children can enjoy the health benefits of eating plant-based meals and avoid the health and environmental consequences associated with eating too much meat and cheese.

Soon, we’ll provide information for parents about how to start Meatless Mondays at their schools. In the meantime, parents can read about how to form a wellness committees and make other changes to improve their schools’ food. Next, we’ll feature an interview with Chris Elam, the director of the nonprofit Meatless Monday, which is working with the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University (named after Mayor Bloomberg, a major donor) to reduce meat consumption in America by 15 percent.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.