Meatless Monday: The first 20 years

by Hannah Walhout

Published: 11/01/23, Last updated: 11/16/23

You’ve likely noticed that the idea of eating less meat (and better meat) is catching on — or at least getting more attention. The health benefits of reducing meat consumption are well documented, and it’s been proposed that even moderate dietary changes, widely adopted, could have a massive environmental impact. Some surveys have shown that around 35 percent of U.S. adults are “actively trying to cut back” on meat, with another 15 to 20 percent considering it.

If it feels like we’re reaching a cultural inflection point, that’s because activists, scholars and scientists have been working for a long time to get us here.

This fall marks the 20th anniversary of Meatless Monday, FoodPrint’s sister program and one of the first and most successful initiatives of its kind. According to a 2021 survey, 38 percent of adults in the U.S. were familiar with its message: There are measurable benefits from eating plant-based just one day a week. Maybe you’ve made this a personal routine; maybe you’ve seen it in action at your school or office cafeteria; maybe you’ve even worked on implementing a program in your community. If Meatless Monday was your first introduction to the broader meat-reduction movement, you’re not alone.

FoodPrint takes a look at the past, present and future of the groundbreaking campaign.

A small change becomes a big idea

Sid Lerner, Meatless Monday founder
Meatless Monday founder Sid Lerner. Photo courtesy of Meatless Monday.

Before it was a household name, Meatless Monday was the creative plan of one man: Sid Lerner. A successful advertising executive during the golden age of Madison Avenue, Lerner became inspired in his retirement years — when he began dealing with high cholesterol and blood pressure — to turn his attention to combating diet-related diseases. Following a recommendation made by the Surgeon General and the American Heart Association, he resolved to get the U.S. to eat just 15 percent less meat. Lerner partnered with Bob Lawrence, founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and Meatless Monday was born.

Much about the idea was novel, but the model for meat-reduction was not. Lerner, born in 1930, remembered the “meatless days” of his youth during World War II, when a combination of rationing and government messaging — fewer trucks carrying meat, more trucks for munitions — led to a significant decrease in consumption, much like a similar national campaign during World War I. But what would it take to spin an austerity measure into an inspiring movement? Or as Lerner put it in a 2010 interview with NPR: “How do you make moderation sexy, fun and doable without being a nag or a nanny?”

Of course, what Lerner was uniquely positioned to add was the magic of advertising. “We have to put a new face, mentality and drive behind public health communications and promotions,” he explained to the Syracuse Post-Standard. Lerner developed a catchy guiding principle, “Once a week, cut out meat.” The Monday thing wasn’t just alliteration, either, but was instead built on research: Considered the beginning of the week in the U.S., Monday is the day people are thinking most about making healthier choices. (Of course, the alliteration doesn’t hurt.)

From cafeterias to climate change

In addition to educating individuals, associate director Joy Lehman explains, “Meatless Monday could also be leveraged and easily implemented by partners anywhere food is served.” Since launching in 2003, Meatless Monday has been adopted on the institutional level by municipalities, corporate offices, hospital systems and school districts. The first big backer was Baltimore City Public Schools, which instituted Meatless Monday system-wide in 2009 — with similar decisions following from school districts in Boston, Detroit, Oakland, New York and many other cities.

students at NYC schools which adopted Meatless Mondays
Students celebrate the adoption of Meatless Monday in New York City Public Schools. Photo courtesy of Meatless Monday.

As operations grew, so did support from national media (Oprah’s a fan), chefs (Wolfgang Puck and Marcus Samuelsson have helped out) and celebrities, including Paul McCartney, who started the U.K. campaign, Meat Free Monday, in 2009. The idea has since expanded across the globe, with chapters in Brazil, Hungary, Ghana, Indonesia and China, among many others. “We work as a global network,” says Lehman; “There are so many cultural and cuisine differences that it really makes sense for the campaign to be led locally.” Partner organizations have been built in more than 40 countries across six continents.

The messaging about the impacts of meat consumption has also expanded over the years. “The original focus was on public health,” says Lehman, and it remains a major tenet. But in the last two decades, the environmental toll of meat production, especially beef, pork and chicken — greenhouse gas emissions, conversion of forest to pastureland, water extraction, pollution that threatens communities and ecosystems — has only become more urgent. Sixty-five percent of the U.S. agrees that citizens should do more to address climate change, and Meatless Monday reports that, between 2012 and 2021, the percentage of people cutting back on meat for environmental reasons has increased.

“Especially around younger audiences,” Lehman says, there is an “interest in and acceptance of the fact that food production has a significant climate impact.” For a new generation of consumers, many of whom are younger than Meatless Monday itself, the role of agriculture in the climate crisis may be their first reason to get on board.

Expanding the meatless message

Meatless Monday has continued to has continued to branch out into new realms: a cookbook with blogger Jenn Sebestyen; a new “spokes-veggie” in the form of Lil Broc; partnerships with chefs and influencers. In 2021, the campaign announced a lineup of Culinary Ambassadors, including “The Modern Tiffin” author Priyanka Naik. “As a plant-based chef working to inspire others to enjoy meatless meals, I’m so grateful to Meatless Monday,” says Naik. “Younger generations want to make a difference, and increasingly are going plant-based for their health and the planet. The simple concept of Meatless Monday gives them an easy, fresh way to do it.”

A major focus for the future is continuing to make it as easy as possible to get involved — especially for young people. “You see a lot of students that are very interested and want to take climate action,” Lehman says. “We create ready-to-use campaign materials in an effort to support the large base of youth that are very familiar and accustomed to eating meatless, and want to bring Meatless Monday to their communities and schools.” Part of that, she explains, is creating tools for the people (school administrators, food service workers, sourcing managers) who implement Meatless Monday at the institutional level. The campaign has also partnered with global youth networks like the Slow Food Youth Network and the World Food Forum.

Lehman underscores that, even though Meatless Monday has reached millions around the world, individuals still have the power to bring the movement to life in their communities — whether they’re a student reaching out to start their own program at school or are involved in operations for a hospital or city government. “Since we are open source, anything on our website is available for free for anyone to use,” she says. “The power of one person cannot be overemphasized.”

Top photo courtesy of Meatless Monday.

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