(CNSNews.com) – The first graders lining up for lunch at Arlington Elementary School in Baltimore, Md., on Monday could pick a cheese sandwich or cheese lasagna and a bowl of mixed vegetables or broccoli. They could not, however, have meat for lunch now that cafeterias throughout the school district have adopted "Meatless Mondays."
Mellissa Mahoney, a chef and dietitian with the school district, said the idea started as part of a themed-approach to planning lunches for the school year. She said the plan changed after representatives from the Meatless Monday movement approached Mahoney and Food Services Director Tony Geraci.
“They met with us over the summer, before we even launched the new menu,” Mahoney told CNSNews.com. She said at first they didn’t realize that Meatless Monday is a national and international movement with ties to extreme animal rights activists. “We know now what they do, and we have collaborated with them,” Mahoney said.
The people promoting the Meatless Monday movement range from former Beatle Paul McCartney to liberal commentators and the Johns Hopkins Center for A Livable Future.
Among its fans are the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an extremist animal rights group that not only seeks an end to meat consumption but lobbies for animals to have the same rights as humans.
The Meatless Monday Web site describes its mission this way:
“Meatless Monday is a non-profit initiative of The Monday Campaigns, in association with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Our goal is to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”
The Web site also mentions voluntary meatless days during periods of war that were endorsed by Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry Truman.
“By reviving this American tradition we can help address the challenges we face today,” the Web site says. “We can improve our health, reduce our carbon footprint and lead the world in the race to mitigate climate change.”
Critics charge that the Meatless Monday campaign is not about healthy choices but is a way for anti-meat activists to pass their message to young children.
J. Patrick Boyle, president and CEO of the American Meat Institute, sent a letter last week to Andres A. Alonso, CEO of the Baltimore City Schools, urging him to drop “Meatless Mondays” on campuses.
“I was disturbed to read about your school system’s decision to bow to an animal rights organization in holding ‘Meat Free Mondays,’” Boyle wrote. “This initiative is sponsored by the Grace Spira Project at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The name Spira refers to Henry Spira, who is widely regarded as one of the most extreme animal rights activists of the 20th century.”
Boyle cited the U.S. Dietary Guidelines affirmation of the importance of meat and poultry in a balanced diet and how most schools accommodate students who are vegetarians without limiting choice for those who want meat for lunch.
“Surely you have always offered a vegetarian option on your menu,” Boyle said in the letter. “Now you are removing a meat or poultry entrée on Mondays and depriving children and their parents of the ability to determine what is appropriate for their diets and their own personal circumstances.”
Staff and students at Arlington Elementary School did not seem to be aware of the controversy surrounding their Monday lunch.
Principal Terrelle Gray told CNSNews.com that she hadn’t discussed “Meatless Monday” with teachers, but she thought it would help children learn more about vegetables and improve their overall diet.
“It introduces them to vegetables in a different way,” Gray said. “Now they see you can fix vegetables in a different way. So, I think it’s a good idea. And everybody should practice a meatless day.”
Six-year-old Daniel Dupree said his teacher told children in his class why they were having only fruits and vegetables on Mondays.
“Because it’s good for you,” Dupree said.
When children at the table were asked if they liked the idea of “Meatless Monday,” one first grader was not shy about giving his opinion.
“No, because I love meat,” he said.
Maloney defended the program as positive for children who eat lunch at school.
“It’s not the ultimate goal to convert all Baltimorians to being vegans or vegetarians,” Maloney said. “That’s not our ultimate goal. What we want to do is at least start the discussion about what you eat and how that affects the community, how that affects the planet, how it affects your health in general.”
The Baltimore schools are now among the “Movers and Shakers Going Meatless” on the Meatless Monday Web site. The schools are also the featured story on the home page.
“We’re pleased and honored that Baltimore City Public Schools have implemented the Meatless Monday program,” the article says. “We believe the program will offer their 80,000 students a powerful opportunity to learn about health and nutrition in an affirming, positive way.”
“I am confident that you are concerned not just about the education of your students,” Boyle wrote to the Baltimore school chief, “but also about their health and nutrition. I urge you to reconsider this decision and allow children every day that attend school to access the most nutrient-dense food available: meat and poultry products.”
“Your children, in particular, deserve this choice,” Boyle said.