03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Children's Health And The Meat Industry

When did our children become disposable?

This loaded question was posed around the conference table in Anthony Geraci's sunny office at the Baltimore School District headquarters as a group of us talked about programs designed to help our kids make healthier choices in their lives, beginning with the food they eat.

As Food Service Director, Tony has worked closely with the district's dietician to make systemic changes that have resulted in the kids in Baltimore schools trying new foods and slowly becoming more health conscious. But it has not been without controversy and therein was the question we posed.

When school began in September, the kids of Baltimore became the first in the country to adopt 'Meatless Mondays, an international program that asks people to cut meat from their diet one day a week. Their goal is simple: reducing meat consumption by a mere 15% can improve human and planetary health. Endorsed by esteemed medical institutions like the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, this seems like a no-brainer, right? Impressed with the credentials and the program, Baltimore decided to take part and see what would happen. I'm not sure anyone was ready for the firestorm of attacks being launched at them by the meat industry.

Leading the charge is, of course, every vegetarian's favorite villain, J. Patrick Boyle, CEO of The American Meat Institute, whose mission in their own words includes: being the most effective, credible and widely recognized voice of the meat and poultry industry, and valuing livestock and poultry as nutritious food sources. The mission statement also says that the 'AMI values honesty.' Ah, irony.

The attacks launched against Meatless Mondays in Baltimore schools are anything but honest. If they told the truth, they would say that by eliminating meat for one meal a week in our kids' diets, we are affecting their bottom line. They have little regard for our children's health. If they did, would growth hormones, steroids, antibiotics and other toxins are so heavily used in the foods they peddle to our kids and call valuable sources of nutrients? If they told the truth, they would acknowledge the connections between childhood obesity, diabetes and heart disease and the excessive consumption of meat products. If they told the truth, they would admit that reducing meat intake by even the smallest amount results in dramatic improvements in human and planetary health.

While Meatless Mondays has received an endorsement from PETA, the infamous animal rights group, it has little to do with the program itself, except to applaud its efforts. The idea of not eating meat on Monday originated back in World War I as an effort to conserve resources. But that's not good enough for Mr. Boyle. In his letter to Andres Alonso (CEO of the Baltimore school district), Mr. Boyle stated that this campaign is a way for animal activists to brainwash young children. Yes, Mr. Boyle, we can't have our kids going all healthy and compassionate on us and valuing life!

His letter continues: "I was disturbed to read about your school system's decision to bow to an animal rights organization in holding "Meat Free Mondays." This initiative is sponsored by the Grace Spira Project at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The name Spira refers to Henry Spira, who is widely regarded as of the most extreme animal rights activists in the 20th century." Puh-leeze!

In a show of admirable will, the school district has not buckled under the pressure of the meat industry. And it has been fierce! Who would have thought that meatless lasagna, cheese sandwiches and broccoli could wreak such havoc? Mr. Boyle has gone as far as stating that Meatless Mondays seeks 'an end to the United States' efficient and advanced food production system that delivers to Americans the safest, most abundant and affordable food supply in the world.'

Even the school dietician's public assurances that the ultimate goal of this program in schools is to help children have a better relationship with vegetables and to start the discussion about the impact of food choices on health, communities and the planet have fallen on deaf ears in the meat industry.

Meatless Mondays is a positive program designed to educate our children to be healthier for life and is being attacked from all sides. Troy Hadrick, a rancher, wrote on the Advocates for Agriculture website that Meatless Mondays are obviously designed to push children toward vegetarian lifestyles by telling them that 'they can't have meat on Monday because meat isn't healthy for you.' He goes on to advocate parents doing whatever it takes to keep this information from their children. Yikes!

As ranchers and lobbyists rail about one school district's plan to make our children healthier by teaching them to have a better relationship with veggies, Fairbanks Farms in North Carolina has recalled more than 500,000 pounds of meat contaminated with E. coli, resulting in 2 people dead and more fallen ill.

What was it that Patrick Boyle said about the safest food supply?

Here's what's interesting. We vegans and vegetarians are more often than not dismissed as petty, unimportant nuisances to meat producing conglomerates. They paint us as Birkenstock-wearing, ungroomed, tree-hugging puppy lovers who mean nothing in the grand scheme of things.

So why is that all these people, from the American Meat Institute to cattle ranchers to lobbyists are so up in arms with one school district taking meat off the menu for one meal a week? Trust me when I tell you it has nothing to do with your children's health and welfare. Could it be that they fear a change in thinking that's in the air? Could it be that they sense that Americans have had enough? Enough of their cheap, subsidized, poor quality meat, loaded with antibiotics, growth hormones, steroids...enough of their swill that is stealing the health of their children and families? Could it be that they are shaking in their cowboy boots at the idea that the children of the future might make better choices than what they have been marketed to want?

The American Meat Institute and their ilk would have us eat more meat, even in the face of the overwhelming evidence that the food they produce and the way they produce it is directly linked to many of the lifestyle diseases that threaten to extinguish the light on the health of our children...obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

This generation of children could be the first that lives shorter, sicker lives than their parents. So many of these problems could be avoided if children ate more whole grains and vegetables and less meat.

Instead of attacking visionaries like those in the Baltimore school district who want nothing but the best for our children, they should be applauding the efforts to create a strong and healthy future for this country.

It's time to stop thinking only of our bottom lines, our profit centers and the health of our checkbooks and make the health of our society a priority. We won't find long term vitality in 99-cent burgers, no matter what Patrick Boyle says. We won't find it in grilled chicken in a bucket either. These organizations have only the health of their business in mind, not the health of our children. For them, our kids are a disposable demographic that can be replaced by another generation.

Who will be next on their hit list, Catholics who still choose not to eat meat on Fridays?