What started in 2003 as a U.S. public health campaign has now become a full-fledged global movement with homegrown versions of a "cut out meat one day a week" program in 21 countries, from "Kottfri Mandag" in Sweden to "Segunda Sem Carne" in Brazil. This rapid global growth isn't the result of a big-budget NGO or a federation with bylaws and quarterly meetings; it's driven by committed advocates from all walks of life -- celebrities like Sir Paul McCartney, foodies and chefs, prominent scientists and physicians and regular moms and students who share the belief that eating less meat is good for our health and good for the planet.
To learn more about what's behind this global growth, I spoke with two Meatless Monday organizers on opposite sides of the world from completely different backgrounds - a Jamaican chef and a Filipino neuroscientist.
Jacqui Sinclair is a rising culinary star best known as the Jamaica Observer's Juicy Chef. She launched Meatless Monday Jamaica in November 2010.
Peggy Neu: What inspired you to start a Meatless Monday campaign?
Jacqui Sinclair: I have battled a few health issues and I was sick of being constantly medicated. As a foodie, I realized the secret for my healing began with nutrition. When I learned about the Meatless Monday campaign, I thought of others like myself who needed inspiration. Lifestyle diseases such as hypertension and diabetes are growing at an alarming rate on the island!
PN: When I think of Jamaican cuisine, I think of curried goat and jerk chicken. Has it been a challenge to get Jamaicans to put vegetables front and center?
JS: This is so true! Jamaicans love their chicken and meat; the most popular dishes are meat-oriented, like the beloved lunchtime treat beef patties, jerk pork and oxtails. I am telling people that you can use the same traditional methods of jerking and adding curry to vegetables instead of meat, so the flavor profile is the same even if the textures are slightly different.
PN: I'm really impressed with the size and diversity of organizations you're getting on board, from government ministries to culinary schools. What's next?
JS: Jamaicans are a visual, passionate people who love music, so we're trying to create something fun and interesting for people to watch and listen to. We're planning a national publicity blitz, which will include TV segments with a Meatless Monday recipe and tip of the week, radio spots, a directory of participating restaurants and food companies and a "My Meatless Monday" feature in the newspaper to get the man on the street to say what he is eating/planning for his Meatless Monday meal.
PN: You said in the Jamaica Observer that you think vegetables are sexy. Could you elaborate?
JS: I am a creative person with an artistic eye. I think nature's bounty is living art. The bold colors and varying shapes of food for me is very sexy. The plump roundness of an eggplant, the vibrant red of a tomato, the popping yellow of corn, the bright orange of a freshly cut pumpkin is very attractive to me. Food is life.
Dr. Custer Deocaris is a neuroscience and bio-gerontology expert with the Department of Science and Technology in the Philippines. He launched Meatless Monday -- or Luntiang Lunes -- in August 2011 after returning to the Philippines from Japan where he was conducting stem cell research.
Peggy Neu: You're the first neuroscientist and bio-gerontologist to start a Meatless Monday campaign. What made you do it?
Custer Deocaris: When I returned to the Philippines I started learning more about my country, including some of its problems. One thing that struck me is the statistic on double-disease burden in Philippines -- a quarter of Filipino children are malnourished while 27% of adults are obese! Filipinos are crazy for burgers and fried chicken, but hardly anyone, especially Filipino kids, eats vegetables. We are blessed with great biodiversity, yet we have the lowest annual per capita intake of vegetables in Asia.
PN: How can a Meatless Monday address malnutrition and obesity at the same time?
CD: Vegetables are the most affordable, practical and sustainable dietary sources of vitamins, minerals and other bioactive compounds. Indigenous legumes, leafy green vegetables and even coconut meat are cheap sources of protein and can help address protein malnutrition among poverty-stricken families. They're also rich sources of dietary fiber that can promote satiety, decrease sugar and fat absorption and help prevent overeating and excessive weight gain.
PN: What's the biggest challenge in getting Filipinos to eat more indigenous vegetables -- availability or changes in tastes?
CD: In my opinion, it would be more of the latter. Massive marketing of Western products including fast foods and soft drinks has dramatically altered Filipino tastes and even many vegetables are non-indigenous varieties. That's why I'm starting Meatless Monday in our schools first -- to make sure that young Filipinos aren't strangers to our country's great bio-diversity.
PN: Why do you think the Meatless Monday idea transcends national boundaries?
CD: Probably because the concept of Meatless Monday is simple and empowering. At a population level, the baby steps with Meatless Monday can be earth-shaking.
To find out more about the global movement visit the U.S. Meatless Monday's new webpage that has links to our sister campaigns. And check out our new video about why giving up meat once a week is good for our health and good for the planet.