09/10/2014 03:27 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2014

Why Is Texas' Ag Commissioner Attacking Schools for Healthier Meals?


Growing up in the Deep South where I was raised on chicken fried steak and cheesy meat pies, I was often told that if it didn't have fat, it wasn't worth eating. Yes, we ate collard greens, but only when they were smothered in lard or drenched in butter. We had a different kind of meat every day; we loved ribs and burgers and wings and fried fish right out of the freezer. Don't get me wrong: we thought we were eating well. It's just the way everyone did things so we assumed that it was good and healthy and I didn't question tradition. At least not for a while...

So part of me can understand where my fellow southerner Texas Ag Commissioner Todd Staples is coming from when he questions Dripping Springs Independent School District (just outside Austin) for its embrace of the popular Meatless Monday movement. We southerners are traditional folks, and it's not always easy or desirable to shift away from what we've been doing for a long time, and we certainly don't like being told that we "should" do something. At the same time, considering the overwhelming evidence that Americans are not thriving because we eat too much meat and not enough plants, it sure is nice that schools are beginning to make it easier for kids to enjoy some really great and healthy options, at least for one day a week. So perhaps it makes sense to understand more about just where Staples is indeed coming from; perhaps it's not free choice or tradition that Staples is championing at all. It seems that the resistance to healthier school meals is more about money and returning favors.

After doing some investigating it all makes a lot more sense now. It turns out that Staples' political campaign was heavily funded by the livestock industry. In fact, he's received $116,000 in campaign contributions from beef producers and ranchers since 2010 alone.

So we have to ask ourselves: who could possibly be against kids getting excited about enjoying protein-packed and vitamin-rich plant-based foods at the start of every week? Of course, someone who owes his political office to the meat industry.

The fact is that Meatless Monday is a real win-win if ever there was one. It's a small change that can make a big difference: one day a week to take a holiday from meat and explore new healthy options. It's a good way that we can help get our families' weeks off to a healthy start and a good way to introduce kids to new plant-based options that they might not otherwise try. And of course it's a great way that we can all reduce our carbon footprint.

It's a real shame when elected officials put the financial interests of their campaign supporters ahead of the interests of our nation's kids. The good news though is that hundreds of schools are embracing Meatless Monday. In fact this Fall alone more than two dozen school districts -- including many in Texas -- kicked off Meatless Monday. The country -- including the south -- is moving in the right direction.

We would all be better off -- the environment, animals, and our health -- if we reduced the amount of meat that we eat. Dripping Springs' Meatless Monday initiative is an important step in the right direction with positive ramifications for its students. Other school districts not yet participating in Meatless Monday should learn from Dripping Springs, and should ignore the shrill, self-interested protests of those pro-meat industry politicians with ulterior motives. We owe it to ourselves, and to our kids, to really think about what's best for us and to advocate for ourselves. Nobody -- no corporate interest or political operative -- should tell us what to do. We love tradition, but we also love the freedom to move forward and thrive.