HERALDED as a way to improve health and save the environment, the Meatless Monday campaign has been touted as reaching 29 countries, with hundreds of U.S. school systems, universities and restaurants participating.
However, according to a recently released analysis by the Animal Agriculture Alliance, the campaign has "grossly misrepresented" U.S. enrollment in the program.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary this month, the campaign was launched in 2003 in association with the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future and was branded as a public health awareness campaign.
"Meatless Monday addresses the prevalence of preventable illnesses associated with excessive meat consumption" by asking consumers to forego eating meat one day each week, the project's website explains.
The alliance analyzed the campaign's participation claims and found that the movement was not nearly as widespread as advertised via the Meatless Monday website. After surveying every participant listed by the campaign, the alliance found:
* Of 56 K-12 schools listed as participating, more than 64% said they either no longer participate or never participated in the first place;
* Of 155 colleges and universities listed as participants, more than 43% no longer or never participated, and
* Of all school districts listed as participating, more than 57% no longer take part in the campaign.
Additionally, more than 35% of restaurants and 47% of foodservice providers listed as part of the campaign said they no longer participate in the program (Figure).
"These results are truly astounding. When we started the project, we didn't expect nearly as many organizations to not actually be participating in the program," Animal Agriculture Alliance president and chief executive officer Kay Johnson Smith said. "The Meatless Monday campaign tries to promote a reduction in meat, milk and egg consumption as trendy, but clearly, it hasn't taken off as strongly as they'd hoped."
Among the school nutrition and foodservice professionals surveyed by the alliance, several common concerns emerged, such as: the campaign was widely unpopular among students, led to food waste and elicited complaints from parents worried about proper nutrition for their children.
"We made a conscious decision to end the program after participating for a little under two years," said April Young, a registered dietician with the Granite County School District in Utah. "As a dietician, I plan meals to accommodate students. Many students have their own dietary needs, and those should be handled individually — not as part of a large-scale program."
Young said her school already offered a vegetarian option for students when the district joined the Meatless Monday campaign, but students didn't like the choices they were given as part of the mandatory meat-free effort.
Perhaps even more concerning, several schools and businesses interviewed as part of the alliance report said they had never joined the campaign and were unclear as to why they were listed in the first place.
"We've never participated, and I'm not sure how my restaurant ended up on their webpage," said Dan Sauer, owner of 7a Foods in Vineyard Haven, Mass. "I have an obligation to my customers to serve what they want. That means having meat and vegetarian options."
The alliance said most foodservice professionals interviewed for the study emphasized a need for consumer choice in the marketplace and said providing a variety of options was a better approach.
According to a 2012 consumption habits survey conducted by the Gallup Organization, just 5% of Americans considered themselves vegetarians, down from 6% observed in the 2001 and 1999 editions of the survey. Gallup said the limited trend data suggested that there has been no substantial change in the incidence of vegetarianism over that 13-year period.
While the survey found that almost all demographic segments of the U.S. population showed a similar percentage of vegetarians, unmarried adults were more than twice as likely as married adults to be vegetarians, and vegetarianism was slightly more prevalent among women than men and among older versus younger adults.
The survey asked, for the first time, if consumers self-identified as vegan, with just 2% of U.S. adults responding in the affirmative.
Representatives of the Meatless Monday campaign and the Center for a Livable Future did not return requests for comment or information on this story.