What’s all the buzz about Meatless Mondays?

Last week I had the opportunity to interview Kristie Middleton, the Outreach Manager for The Humane Society of the United States’ (HSUS) farm animal protection division. Kristie oversees the organization’s shareholder advocacy program. She has successfully worked with dozens of corporations, hospitals, and other institutions to improve the plight of farm animals through humane-minded purchasing programs.

Read on to learn more about Kristie and the Meatless Monday campaign.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and the work you are involved with at The Humane Society of the United States.

I’m Outreach Manager for Farm Animal Protection at The Humane Society of the United States. In my role, I work with schools, hospitals, and major corporations within the food industry on improving animal welfare in their supply chains and other programs to reduce the suffering of farm animals. Some examples include moving toward higher animal welfare products like cage-free eggs and pork from breeding pigs not confined in gestation crates. We also work with some of these institutions on implementing and promoting programs like Meatless Monday.

It seems like I’m hearing a lot more about Meatless Monday these days. How long has the concept been around and what was the original inspiration for the campaign?

Meatless Monday was first introduced during WWI by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration as a way for Americans to conserve resources during wartime and do their part to support the troops. It was brought back again by both Presidents Roosevelt and Truman during WWII. In 2003, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and retired ad man-turned health advocate Sid Lerner re-launched Meatless Monday as a multinational effort to promote sustainability, animal welfare, and public health. The program has become an international movement with restaurant companies, hospitals, schools, and corporate cafeterias participating, and celebrities and other public figures touting the benefits of Meatless Monday for the environment, human health, and animals.

Do you have a grasp on how many people are participating in Meatless Monday, and are you finding that it’s being embraced more in certain parts of the country or with certain populations?

People are more concerned these days than ever before about where their food comes from and how it’s produced. That concern is reflected in recent polling. Earlier this year the American Meat Institute and Food Marketing Institute released the results of a study in which they found that 18 percent of respondents were “implementing meatless Mondays.” The movement is taking hold in surprising places. From the Baltimore Public School system to Medical University of South Carolina to most of the University of California campuses, schools are getting on board. Celebrities from Oprah Winfrey to Martha Stewart to chefs like Mario Batali are participating. And media are taking part too, like BET, Black Entertainment Television, the Christian Science Monitor, and Denver’s alternative newsweekly Westword, which are among some of the outlets posting weekly Meatless Monday recipe ideas.

Given the scale of our industrial food system, can small individual actions such as participating in Meatless Monday or buying local really make a difference?

The sheer enormity of our food system can seem overwhelming and taking individual actions may sometimes feel fruitless, but if not us, then who? If all of us went meat-free just one day a week it would spare about 1.4 billion animals from suffering on factory farms. With respect to curbing our environmental impact, according to the Sierra Club, “If Americans reduced meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as though we all switched from a sedan to a hybrid.”

Individual actions are very important. Large scale policies make change happen even faster, so anyone who wants to make a difference should not only participate themselves, but encourage their friends, family, and better yet, employers, college, hospital, alma mater or other institution to get on board. The HSUS has worked with students and employees on such initiatives and we’re always happy to help individuals who want to get involved in this manner.

Beyond Meatless Monday, what are some other things “flexitarians” can do to take a stand against factory farming?

The HSUS promotes eating with conscience and embracing the Three Rs—reducing the consumption of meat and other animal-based foods through programs like Meatless Monday; refining the diet by avoiding products from the worst production systems (e.g., switching to cage-free eggs); and replacing meat and other animal-based foods in the diet with plant-based foods. Individuals can also help spread the word about these initiatives through social networks, such as by sharing our fun new Meatless Monday video on Facebook and Twitter. The scope of animal suffering on factory farming is immense, but there are things both big and small that we can all do to help abate that suffering. The important thing is that we recognize our responsibility and get started right away.

U.S. Food System: Can We Really Make a Difference?

What’s been done already?

It’s so overwhelming to think about our current food system, yet alone try to change anything! But it’s not all gloom and doom when it comes to animal welfare and factory farming. There have, in fact, been some important improvements. So, before I dive into the “not so pleasant” realities of the current U.S. food system, I’m going to start by mentioning a few of the achievements:

  • So far, the European Union and eight U.S. states have outlawed the use of gestation crates for sows. Several retailers have also agreed to ban pork products coming from facilities that use gestation crates to confine breeding sows. Recently, HSUS submitted a shareholder resolution requesting that Dominoes report to shareholders on the feasibility of using pepperoni and ham that comes only from “gestation-free” facilities.
  • In the United States, at least 92 percent of egg-laying hens are confined to battery cages. In July 2011, the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers reached an agreement to support federal legislation to improve conditions for caged hens and eventually phase out the use of battery cages. The European Union has already passed legislation to phase out battery cages by 2012.

The BIG Problem

Although these are all steps in the right direction, there is still a ton of work to do.  In my opinion, it’s all just getting way too big! Our current food system seems to encourage industrial agriculture over small-scale farming.

Right now, four companies control 84 percent of beef packing, 66 percent of pork production, and one company, Monsanto, controls patents on more than 93 percent of soybeans and 80 percent of corn grown in the U.S.  According to the Food and Water Watch report Factory Farm Nation: How America Turned Its Livestock Farms into Factories:

The decline in buyers and processing plants has left fewer selling options for livestock producers, which puts them under increased pressure to take whatever price they can get, even if it does not cover their costs. Over time, this forces small operations to grow in order to recoup low prices with higher volume (more animals) or leave the business entirely. In farm circles, this phenomenon is described as “get big or get out.”

Agribusiness continues to gain influence, while the farmers, consumers, animals, and the environment suffer.

Ways to take action!

The food movement is gaining traction. Enough traction, in fact, that the newly formed U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) has launched a new multi-million dollar public relations campaign  as an effort to “reshape the dialogue” about the American food supply. Influential writer Michael Pollan and documentaries such as Food, Inc. are bringing the issues surrounding farm and food policy to the masses, and  it appears that big agriculture is beginning to feel the heat.

Here are a few ideas on actions you can take to help drive the food movement forward.

Occupy Wall Street: If you’re concerned about the current food system, consider joining forces with the OWS movement.

 To change the food system, we need systemic change in financial institutions, regulation, corporate influence; we need a shift in power. For a movement that has long been waiting for its moment, uniting in common cause with Occupy Wall Street may be the way to finally build enough power to create the change we need.

–          Siena Chrisman, Why the food movement should occupy Wall Street

Farm Bill 2012: The biggest piece of legislation influencing our farm and food system is up for review in 2012. There is talk that the Agriculture Committees are trying to write the farm bill this week, behind closed doors.

Be a Smart Consumer:

National Conference to End Factory Farming

Photo by Farm Sanctuary

Starting tomorrow, experts from all types of backgrounds will come together for the first National Conference to End Factory Farming: for Health, Environment and Farm Animals in Arlington, Virginia. Farm Sanctuary, the nation’s leading farm animal protection organization and planner of the conference, has put together an impressive lineup of more than 30 speakers. This is the first conference to focus directly on factory farming and its effects on human health, the environment, and on the welfare of farm animals.

Photo by Scott Bauer, USDA

Gene Baur, president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary and Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) will kick off the conference with a welcome reception on Thursday evening followed by two days of plenary and panel presentations. The first day of sessions will focus on “the issues” and the second day will focus on “building solutions.” Check out the full list of speakers. On October 22,  HLN’s Jane Velez-Mitchell talked to Time magazine’s Bryan Walsh (speaker) about the conference. Check out the video below.

More than ever, people are beginning to question where their food is really coming from – and they should!  According to Farm Forward, more than 99 percent of animal products in the United States are produced under factory farm conditions. So, unless you’re a vegetarian, you are more than likely buying into a system where animals are treated more like machines than living, breathing creatures. And to make matters worse, global meat production and consumption is on the rise. According to research released earlier this month by the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project, worldwide meat production has tripled since the 1970s and since 2000, global meat production has risen by 20 percent.

This month, Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals, led a captivating discussion on factory farming at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Australia. In the session, he said:

Factory farming depends on ignorance… it requires ignorance. There is nobody who, upon learning about what factory farming does for the environment, animals, and to humans, likes it more. There is no such person… everybody like it less.

He goes onto talk about the consequences of this silence as global consumption increases:

If China and India start eating like Americans, we’re going to have to factory farm twice as many animals even if the human population holds level, which it won’t. That would be 100 billion factory farmed animals every year! Silence about such a massive and urgent problem to me, seems like the most dangerous idea of all.

The video in its entirety is almost an hour long, but Jonathan’s talk is only about 30 minutes. Trust me, it’s definitely worth your time! Click here to watch the video.

The solution to stop factory farming will have to include both an increased consciousness of the realities of factory farming and a reduced demand for meat on a global scale. I have high hopes for this conference and expect some real solutions to emerge from this gathering of talented and passionate individuals.

To summarize these feelings of hope, I am ending this blog with a quote from Nil Zacharias, co-founder of One Green Planet (a conference sponsor) from a recent Huffington Post Green blog:

It’s time we came together to build a movement that is focused on bringing about real change; it’s time to focus on the real issues and the best ideas that can solve them, irrespective of ideological differences; it’s time we stop undermining our health, the lives of animals and the future of our planet; it’s time to end factory farming!

Welcome to my blog for the Educated Eater!

Hello, everyone!

Welcome to my first blog entry for The Educated Eater and, quite honestly, my first blog entry… EVER!  My main motivation behind starting this blog was to fulfill the requirements of a course I am taking this fall at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School: PA 5190, Social Media: Engaging Democracy and Communities Online.

I am personally interested in the issues surrounding factory farming and the moral dilemma I regularly face when choosing to eat, or not to eat, meat!  I am not a vegetarian.  In fact, my husband is a deer hunter in Minnesota and I totally support his decision to do so.  I shop at both the mainstream grocer and the local food co-op.  I make some good food choices, but not all good food choices. I hope, through this research and blog, to learn more about the industry so that I can make educated decisions on all of the food that I consume. I also hope that I can help other confused souls navigate the complicated world of industrial livestock production.

I’ve started a resource page on experts I’ve found on this topic. This is a starting point and I’d love to add to this list, so please feel free to send more suggestions.