The Original Meatless Monday

By Thomas F. Schwartz

A recent opinion piece advocated for the return of meatless Monday as a way of addressing climate change.  Certain animals release methane, a greenhouse-gas that adversely impacts the ozone.  Foregoing meat on Monday, according to the editorial board, would help the environment.  This view is hardly new.  A website was launched in 2003 called “Meatless Monday” stating: “Our goal is to reduce meat consumption by 15% for our personal health and the health of our planet.”  The origin of the phrase “Meatless Monday” was part of a larger initiative of Herbert Hoover as United States Food Administrator during World War I.  The idea of disciplining the body to abstain from certain foods dates back to ancient times and transcends any geographic setting.  Fasting tends to be associated with religious or philosophical doctrines that codified a structure to follow.  Hippocrates, considered the father of modern medicine, thought fasting benefited overall health.

Herbert Hoover learned many lessons through his leadership of the Commission for Relief in Belgium [CRB], an independent non-governmental organization that provided food for millions of civilians in German-occupied areas of Belgium and Northern France.  Belgium was the most industrialized and densely populated European country in 1914.  Nearly 80% of the food consumed was imported until German occupation ended further importation.  The CRB became the main source of food for most civilians in German-occupied areas.  Hoover learned how many calories and which nutritional components of those calories were required to daily keep an individual healthy.   That information provided the key on how to maximize the number of people fed with available food.  From the period of late 1914 until his departure in early 1917, the CRB provided hot school lunches for children and food at distribution centers for adults to keep a civilian population from starving.

When Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany in 1917, Hoover returned home.  He was recruited quickly by President Wilson to head the US Food Administration.  The goal of the US Food Administration was to provide sufficient food for the war effort.  This could be accomplished by both increased production as well as reduced consumption at home.  Increasing production was dependent upon farmers and meat producers to plant more corps and increase herd and flock sizes.  This required time.  The one factor that was less time sensitive was convincing Americans to reduce consumption of items identified as vital to the war effort: meat, wheat, sugar, and fats.  Hoover appealed to American housewives, who oversaw most consumption habits of Americans, to sign a pledge card and follow a schedule of reduced consumption.  Approximately 1.5 million women signed the pledge and voluntarily reduced consumption of these vital foodstuffs by 15%, enough to meet war effort demands. Soon the US Food Administration was issuing recipe books showing one how to use substitutions of rye and corn meal for wheat flour and urged the consumption of fish, eggs, and chickens for beef, pork, and sheep. The pledge, required sacrifice on every day of the week. Taking the pledge became known as “Hooverizing.” Popular culture immortalized “Hooverizing” in songs and parodies.     

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