Photo by Eliza Barclay
Tony Geraci, food service director for Baltimore City Public Schools, is an emerging champion of healthy school food, along with Alice Waters, Anne Cooper and Michelle Obama--and, as with them, the press has hungrily followed Geraci since he moved from New Hampshire to Baltimore last year to take over food service for the public school system [Curator's note: including me! But I met Geraci before he got famous].
Lately, it has seemed even hungrier, because of a decision the Baltimore school system made: the school system's 80,000 students weren't going to get any meat on Mondays.
The Meatless Mondays program was launched to reduce the cholesterol and saturated fats in the lunch offerings and introduce alternate proteins and vegetables. (It's also helped the cash-strapped school district cut some costs.) Geraci and chef/dietician Mellissa Mahoney say they don't want to promote vegetarianism, just healthy omnivorism. On Mondays, beans and cheese are the main source of protein (along with vegetables and grains) and kids don't lose out on a single gram.
But the American Meat Institute, along with the Animal Agriculture Alliance, the Missouri Beef Council, and the editors of Pork Magazine, were unsurprisingly unhappy with the plan, and went to the press themselves.
Janet Riley, of the American Meat Institute, went on Lou Dobbs' show on CNN last week to chastise Baltimore for depriving its students of key nutrients: protein. Her boss, the group's CEO, has also written a public letter to Baltimore's City Schools CEO Andrés Alonso, noting he was "disturbed" by the initiative and that "meat and poultry may be the only significant source of protein" in Baltimore kids' diets. (The claim is of course groundless, as the Food Channel's Marion Nestle explained to the author of this blog post, which also gives a roundup of some of the press coverage of Meatless Mondays.) Janet Riley gave Dobbs a figure: 75 percent of American children, she said, are not getting enough protein. I was visiting Baltimore the day of the Dobbs taping, and asked her the following day by phone share the source of the number. She promised to email it, but never did.
When I asked Riley her thoughts about the problem of childhood obesity and other health issues, she replied: "Meat is associated with weight control. It's not the number one source of fat in their diet." She also invoked her own two sons to emphasize that kids require animal protein in their diets. "Meat is what keeps them satisfied and out of the pantry," she told me.
In an editorial published earlier this month, Pork Magazine wrote, "The Baltimore school officials have taken it upon themselves to relieve dietitians and nutritionists of part of their duties, at least for the first day of the school week." Funnily enough, it was the school district's only dietician, Mahoney, who conceived the program.
And the Baltimore Sun reported that the Animal Agriculture Alliance has implored citizens "shocked" by Meatless Mondays to contact Alonso "to ensure this effort does not spread."
When I was in Baltimore last Monday, I visited Calverton, a pre-K through eighth grade school in West Baltimore, to find out how students are responding. A handful of sixth graders were excited about the change. Dajana Mills, 12, told me she looked forward to finding out what the Meatless Monday entrée would be every week. "It gives us a chance to pick different stuff instead of meat," she told me. She's tried new vegetables like eggplant and "white stuff," which we eventually determined to be cauliflower. When I asked her friend Shane Garey if he thought Meatless Mondays was more healthy, he responded, "Yeah, it has less calories."
That Monday, kids were choosing between a grilled cheese sandwich or veggie chili bowl with black beans, salsa and rice. There was also salad, corn, and fresh fruit. Calverton's cafeteria director, Gail Pendelton, told me that she and her staff enjoy working with Mahoney's new vegetarian menu because it allows them to play around with spices, instead of the usual cafeteria routine of simply unwrapping and reheating packaged food.
At the beginning of the term, she said, students were a bit apprehensive about the new items. So she started putting out small samples of entrees like eggplant parmesan and veggie lasagna so kids could try them first.
Calverton's principal, Tanya Green, has embraced Meatless Mondays as an opportunity to teach kids about health and nutrition. (Other schools have voluntarily done this too; it hasn't been mandated for everyone.) In science and health classes in the elementary and middle school grades, teachers are talking about Meatless Mondays in relation to the food pyramid. Kids also have the chance to design menus and come up with other ideas for vegetarian entrees.
I asked Mahoney how parents have reacted to the new changes, and she told me that some of them have been less receptive than the kids: She's been cussed out for not serving hot dogs and hamburgers, she said. When this happens, she assures parents that she hasn't gotten rid of those kid-favorites but has instead expanded the three-week menu rotation into a six-week rotation, to allow for more variety. Baltimore students still get chicken nuggets and hot dogs--just not as often.
Oddly enough, the meat industry hasn't noticed in addition to Meatless Mondays the school district now has Sandwich Tuesdays and Chicken Choice Wednesdays--which both prominently feature meat.