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Meatless Monday's Peggy Neu On The Health And Environmental Benefits Of Part-Time Vegetarianism

First Posted: 10/10/2011 11:44 am EDT Updated: 12/09/2011 4:12 am EST

Have you avoided your meat today?

More and more people are going vegetarian -- at least part-time -- as they join a movement that suggests even a small change in their diet can pay dividends for both their health and the health of the planet.

Sid Lerner, founder of the Monday Campaigns, which devote Mondays to various healthy behaviors, launched the non-profit Meatless Monday initiative in 2003 with the help of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. The program provides information and suggestions for healthy, environmentally friendly alternatives to meat -- even offering a free recipe widget and tailored kits to enable groups or individuals to start their own campaigns. (Also included, of course, are downloadable posters of cute cows, pigs and chickens with catchy slogans like "March to a different drumstick. Go meatless on Mondays.") Turns out, voluntarily starting the week meat-free is an American tradition that goes back nearly a century: The federal government promoted the practice during World Wars I and II to aid U.S. and Allied efforts.

Now, participation in the modern incarnation of Meatless Monday has gone viral. Followers are exchanging plant-based recipes on Facebook, and hospitals, schools and restaurants have begun promoting meat-free alternatives.

At last week's inaugural SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas, HuffPost sat down with Meatless Monday president Peggy Neu to discuss the effort's origins, its progress and the challenges that remain at the intersection of food, environment and public health.

What inspired the campaign? And why Monday?

The number one thing is health. We found in our research that this is the primary reason people are interested in cutting back on meat. The idea was really born with the release of the Healthy People 2010 report from the Surgeon General, which recommended lowering meat consumption by 15 percent in order to cut down on saturated fat. Sid Lerner recognized that 15 percent works out to about one day a week. So rather than people having to figure out how to cut back a little every day, the idea was to just do it once a week. It's very easy, and it's memorable. Just that little change can make a big difference for a range of health concerns. Eating too much meat is linked to cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease -- the main effect of saturated fat. Really, it's all about moderation.

How might going meatless part-time help address the world's dual concerns of hunger and obesity?

The Philippines recently started a Meatless Monday campaign as part of their attempt to address this double disease burden of malnutrition and hunger, which affects 25% of population, and obesity, which is also increasingly an issue in the developing world. As these countries start adopting the Western diet of a lot of meat and fast food, those chronic diseases we see in our country -- from heart disease to diabetes -- start to come up. At the same time, there is all this grain that we use to feed livestock, which we could use to feed people instead. That could make a huge difference. The Philippines, with their great biodiversity, has tried to focus on growing indigenous vegetables. Being able to eat local and not be dependent on centralized food systems can also go a long way in addressing both of these issues.

How does the environment benefit from this shift in food choices?

The environmental benefits of reducing meat consumption are part of what made the movement really take off over the last few years. There's more and more awareness, particularly in regards to industrial meat production and its use of so much grain, water and fossil fuels -- which are required to get the grain to the feedlots. More and more, that is becoming a mainstream issue. A recent poll out from the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance indicated that 79 percent of people wanted farmers and ranchers to be growing food and raising livestock in ways that are healthy. A majority, 72 percent, really didn't know where their food came from or how it was produced. Antibiotic resistance and the use of chemicals in antibiotics was one of the main concerns. With the Farm Bill coming up, people are getting out there and discussing these issues. And as these discussions go on, consumers are becoming more aware and realizing that they can make up their own minds about what they should eat.

What connections exist, if any, between these concerns and the recent cantaloupe recall? Given that livestock have even been implicated in illnesses associated with produce, could production changes on the farm also make fruits and veggies safer?

Once things become so concentrated -- when we get away from local, smaller scale farms -- there's a lot more that can go wrong. According to all sorts of polls, food safety really tops the list of concerns. I love cantaloupe. But it's like the Alar Scare with apples back in 1980s, which cut people off of apples for a while. That's the effect of something like that. And it's unfortunate, especially when it happens with healthy fruits and vegetables.

What's next? Do you see your meatless campaign going beyond Monday?

It's stunned us how successful Meatless Monday has been. It has spread across the world, with 21 countries now doing some version of it. We just did a poll: We've reached 50 percent awareness in the U.S., and 27 percent of those people said Meatless Monday had influenced their decision to cut back on meat. It's spreading in restaurants with big celebrity chefs like Mario Batali, as well as in small local restaurants. We're not saying that after you go meatless one day, you should then do Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday too. And because it's Monday, it doesn't tell you what to do, it just tells you when to do it. We're all about taking those small steps. It makes sense to people to cut back on meat, and this is a fun, easy way to do it.


CORRECTION: A previous version of this article had Neu stating that 121 countries participated in Meatless Mondays. The correct number is 21.

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