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You may know it from recipes tagged by popular food magazines, cooking shows and celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver, or maybe it was Paul McCartney’s 2017 video campaign that got your attention. Perhaps you are already one of the increasing number of people adopting a flexitarian diet. We are constantly told by experts that reducing meat consumption, starting by one meat-free day in a week is necessary in light of modern society woes such as increasing obesity and global climate change.
So it’s easy to think of this widespread campaign as a new idea sprung in recent years by health and environmental activists. Would you believe it then that Meatless Mondays was actually a term coined more than 100 years ago?
THE BEGINNINGS: WWI AND FOOD CONSERVATION
The first incident of large scale meatless days goes back to 1917, when the US joined the first World War. Already three years into the war, it was a time when much of the European agriculture was devastated, as farmers were turned into soldiers and fields into battlegrounds. Food was scarce, and not only soldiers but entire populations were struggling to meet their basic nutritional needs. Entering into the war, the US government had more than just a military purpose, but also a humanitarian one: to ensure the nourishment of its own soldiers, of the allies and their people.
'Food Will Win the War' was the slogan of the immediately formed United States Food Administration. Headed by Herbert Hoover, the USFA’s approach to wartime food conservation took on a different tune to the strict official rationing like those adopted by some of its European allies at the time. Rather, it was a voluntary one, the spirit well captured in the famous quote by Hoover: “Our conception of the problem in the United States is that we should assemble the voluntary effort of the people… We propose to mobilize the spirit of self-denial and self-sacrifice in this country.”
Source: National Archives and Records Administration
Meatless and Wheatless Days became the patriotic duty for millions of men, women and even children, who were encouraged to eat less meat, along with wheat, fats and sugars – non-perishable foods seen as nutritionally superior, and best reserved for shipping overseas. The government disseminated its campaign through propaganda, posters, lectures, workshops and other means to try to get people to save food voluntarily. “About 70% of American families during WWI promised that they would voluntarily try to save food”, said Helen Veit, associate professor of history at Michigan State University specialising in 19th, 20th century American history.
The voluntary nature of the program, as well as providing specific ‘days’ in which to avoid certain foods was a strategy that proved to be effective. “They created a structure for many people and made it easier to follow, but it also made it possible for informal surveillance, of neighbours which again, was voluntary. No one was breaking the law … but for many people it was a patriotic duty, and there was peer pressure [to follow the guidelines].” In the book by Mullendore, History of the United States Food Administration 1917-1919, it is noted that some 14 million families, and 7,000 hotels and restaurants signed pledge cards that showed their promises to stay true to the ideals of the USFA.
THE ROLE OF MODERN FOOD SCIENCE
Apart from reducing US domestic food consumption, which fell by an estimate of 15%, the food conservation efforts of WWI played a role in the development of modern food science. Noted by Veit, “It was the 1910s when modern nutrition science was coming into being and the US government made full use of the authority of this science as it gave its directions to people.”
Along with the structure of ‘-less days’ in place, the USFA’s efforts went further in order to educate people on substituting those ingredients with other foods without compromising on nutrition. For example, to use protein rich nuts and dairy in place of red meat, while rye and corn flour were to replace wheat flour. Fruits and vegetables were highly encouraged, as they were perishable items unfit for shipping. “The war really popularised and introduced what were new nutrition terms at the time like calories and vitamins… and by the end of the war they had become virtually household words for many people.”
“Food That Will Win the War and How to Cook Them”, C.Houston Goodies and Alberta Goudis, New York, N.Y., 1918
-LESS DAYS CHANGED THE WAY AMERICANS EAT
Experts suggest that the Meatless and Wheatless days menus and recipes of 1917-1918 had a lasting impact on the diets of Americans. Not all the recipes that the USFA home economists came up with were meant to be tasty on the palate, but for the average American, it helped change the idea of what a typical dinner plate looked like. A large piece of steak was replaced with “meat-stretching dishes such as casseroles and soups, which remained very popular in the years following the war”, said Veit.
MEATLESS MONDAY: THEN AND NOW
The idea of cutting red meat, eating less white flour, and substituting these with more legumes, fresh produce may sound familiar to the cries of the current decade’s healthy eating campaigns. But the truth is, that the two food campaigns, 100 years apart, could not be far from each other in their health-related messages. In delivering the ‘Food Will Save the War’ campaign in 1917, the ideals set by the USFA were “not only entirely inadvertent” in being healthy by modern standards, but the underlying rationale “was actually the opposite – many people at the time believed that white flour was nutritionally superior and that we needed red meat to be healthy and strong” said Veit. “The government had to convince the public that you could still be healthy, even with less white flour.”
Source: National Archives and Records Administration
The modern Meatless Monday, Meat Free Monday, or flexitarian movement not only concerns the impact on our personal health, but also that of the planet. We are constantly told it is necessary to shift away from meat-centric diets in order to avoid dangerous global warming.
And while the message has changed, the reasons that made Meatless Days work so well back then, with its mass participation, yet applies. “The same things that drove the government administrators a hundred years ago in creating these days, I think they still hold” said Veit, because “creating a structure for people, and the sense of having, not necessary surveillance, but a group feeling, of ‘we’re all not going to have meat today,’ that’s what is good.”