Smiling WWII GI drinking coffee

Appetite for Reduction

Over the last 100 years, Meatless Monday’s focus has shifted from wartime conservation to health awareness—and its impact keeps growing.

By Lindsay Smith Rogers • Images UNT Digital Library, National Archives Catalog, Library of Congress

During the First and Second World Wars, Americans observed one meatless day per week to feed the troops. 

Decades later, former advertising executive Sid Lerner recalled this effort during a conversation with Robert Lawrence, MD, founding director of the Center for a Livable Future. The two were discussing a Surgeon General report urging Americans to reduce saturated fat intake by 15 percent, and Lerner realized that skipping meat one day a week would meet the suggested reduction. 

It was “an appealing idea that wasn’t very hard to explain,” Lerner says. “So we thought we’d dust that off and give it another run.” In association with the School, the former ad man relaunched the Meatless Monday campaign in 2003 with a health focus. Today, about 30 percent of Americans have heard of the movement, says Becky Ramsing, senior program officer of CLF’s Food Communities and Public Health program.

In 2009, Meatless Monday went global, and today the campaign is promoted in more than 40 countries. From South Africa, where over 600 restaurants offer vegetarian items on Monday, to Slovakia, where university cafeterias implemented Meatless Monday in 2016, the movement continues to gain traction. 

“Meatless Monday has unified citizens around the world with a simple call to action that benefits our personal health and, through collective action, the health of the planet,” says Lawrence.

Ramsing stresses the movement’s environmental benefits. Globally livestock production accounts for around 80 percent of all agricultural land and about a third of fresh water use, all while churning out more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry. By not eating meat one day a week, as South Korea’s Meatless Monday campaign website says, “you are an environmentalist.”

Over the next hundred years, Ramsing hopes more countries will adopt Meatless Monday. She would also like to see the movement become a gateway to lasting diet changes. But for now, “cutting out meat, just one day a week,” as the campaign’s slogan goes, is a good place to start.

Collection of wartime rationing and victory garden posters.
Mission: Conservation | During wartime, eating less meat was promoted as a way for U.S. families to support the troops.