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Meet Chris Elam, An Advocate for Meatless Mondays

In our quest to bring Meatless Mondays to more city cafeterias, we recently interviewed one of the people who’s helping that happen, Chris Elam. Elam is the program director of Meatless Monday, an organization dedicated to getting the word out about the environmental and health effects of reducing meat consumption.

Here’s what Elam had to say about the benefits of going meatless, how schools are making the change, and why it would be a big deal if New York City signed on.

EP & AR: When did Meatless Monday start, and what is its mission? 

CE: Meatless Monday, an initiative of the The Monday Campaigns, launched in 2003 in association with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Our mission is simple: to reduce saturated fat intake worldwide by encouraging people to cut meat one day a week. As a nonprofit public health initiative, we are dedicated to bringing Meatless Monday to homes, schools, campuses, offices and communities at large.

Why meatless? 

A broad range of studies suggests that excessive meat consumption may result in higher risks of the four primary chronic preventable diseases killing Americans today: heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke.

Why Monday? 

It’s the start of the week. Research shows that Monday is the very best time for people to start and sustain behavior change.

 Indeed, if this Monday passes you by, there’s always another one around the corner — allowing you to wipe the slate clean, and recommit to healthy behaviors. Plus, “Meatless Monday” just sounds right.

Tell us about the Baltimore City Public School System and how Meatless Monday got started there. 

Eighty-five thousand schoolkids in Baltimore now start each week with healthy, fresh, plant-based lunches — for some of these kids, sadly, it’s one of the few nutritious meals they receive all week. The Meatless Monday campaign works closely with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, located in Baltimore, and they were instrumental in outlining the health and environmental benefits — nudging the Baltimore school system to embrace Meatless Monday in September 2009. In addition, Baltimore has a very forward-thinking food services director, Tony Geraci, who spearheaded the implementation, along with a push for more local produce in school cafeterias and more school gardens. It’s been a rousing success so far!

Are you working with other public school systems in the U.S.? 

Currently there are four schools in the East Village (of Manhattan) that have proudly implemented Meatless Monday. We are also working on a pilot program in Chatham, N.J. There are eight schools in Covington County, Ky., that go meatless on Monday. And with the recent announcement that the city of San Francisco has adopted Meatless Monday, we are targeting other West Coast cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, and Portland, reaching out to their city officials and school boards and encouraging them to join the movement.

What are your plans for the New York City public system? Are you speaking with anyone at the DOE Office of School Food about implementing Meatless Monday in our city’s schools?

Now with the active support of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, we are speaking with Stephen O’Brien, a director of SchoolFood, this week. Our plan is to show how easy, fun and healthy it is to bring Meatless Monday to all schools in New York City. Indeed, we are working with the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food to market school lunch recipes that they’ve developed — recipes that are plant-based while utilizing the federal government food allotment — to the city and to the rest of the country.

What would be the impact of the New York City Public School System going meatless on Monday? 

The impact would be profound. For one, it would show the rest of the country that New York City can take a leadership role in kids health. Secondly, it would get kids thinking, it would get teachers developing new curricula, and most importantly, it would get parents reflecting on and hopefully improving the quality of the food their children eat. In the short term, it would provide nutritious and tasty lunches to our city’s youth at a time when the specter of childhood obesity looms ever larger.

Who’s joined Meatless Monday so far?

The coalition of civic leaders, food celebrities and taste makers is broad. Former Vice President Al Gore, food writer Michael Pollan, Sir Paul McCartney, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, chef Mollie Katzen, chef Katie Lee, actress Gwenyth Paltrow, and actor Simon Cowell – these names touch on our range of support. Internationally, Meatless Monday programs have popped up in Britain, Brazil, Taiwan, Austalia, Canada, Holland, and Finland. Here in this country, about 30 college campuses go meatless on Monday. Nearly 100 blogs do weekly Meatless Monday features, including the biggest one of all: Huffington Post. And Compass Group, the world’s largest food services company, says encourages diners to go meatless once a week in 8,500 U.S. corporate and academic cafeterias. The Meatless Monday movement continues to grow — and we hope to enlist New York City to further spark the engine.

Finally, what do you hope to achieve with Meatless Monday?

It’s all about raising consciousness. Helping inspire positive change, one small step at a time. My colleague, Tami O’Neill, wrote this recently, and I think it’s apt:

Is there anything more American than the chicken nugget? Quick, cheap, portable and deep fried, these golden morsels have become more synonymous with our culture than apple pie. More than a telling indication of our nation’s priorities, processed meats like hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken nuggets have become a way of life for many of us. Americans consume, on average, over 200 pounds of meat each year — fully 45% more than the USDA recommends.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We have an option. We can gradually improve the quality of the food we eat, the fuel we put in our tank. Our hope is that we can achieve this together, by making more space on the plate for vegetables, one Monday at a time!

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.