Something is missing from the cafeteria trays in the Wyandanch school district every Monday. And school officials say that's a good thing.
What's missing is meat, as the school district embraces a new initiative, Meatless Mondays, which is part of an international campaign to encourage less consumption of meat for health and environmental benefits.
"We want to teach students about a healthy lifestyle," said Pamela Usher, the district's school lunch manager. "We're continuing that learning experience in the cafeteria."
Wyandanch is believed to be the only public school district on Long Island undertaking the initiative, which itjoined in March.
Wyandanch high school principal Paul Sibblies said he wants students to make the connection between "how they are treating their bodies and how it impacts learning."
"I have grave concerns for my students," he said. "They come in eating chips and ice cream and think that's OK."
Wyandanch's student population is largely black and Hispanic, two groups that typically have higher rates of diabetes and obesity, according to the state Health Department.
"In our community we have a high obesity rate, high diabetes, high blood pressure rates," Usher said. "We're just trying to educate the students of the health benefits of a more plant-based diet."
Dating back to WWI
Meatless days date back to World War I, when the government urged families to reduce consumption of certain foods to aid the war effort, with posters instructing citizens to eat less meat, wheat, sugar and fats "to save for the Army and our allies." The effort was restarted during World War II and afterward to help war-ravaged Europe.
In 2003, the concept of Meatless Mondays was ignited by a former advertising executive, Sid Lerner of New York City, working in conjunction with the Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for a Livable Future. Lerner established the nonprofit The Monday Campaigns in New York City after watching his cholesterol hit new highs.
He said Monday is a natural kick-start for the effort, with research showing that Monday is a "global day for people to get their act together in terms of health."
"I started with a corny concept of Friday is payday, Saturday is play day, Sunday is pray day, so let's have Monday a day of health," he said. "It's almost a no-brainer. It's a day when you start checking out your health needs and getting into the behavior cycle for the week."
The initiative has spread to 30 countries, with hospitals, universities, military groups and restaurants taking part. More than a million U.S. school kids also participate, with the entire Los Angeles, San Diego and Baltimore school districts joining in the effort, Lerner said.
Long Island's high number of school districts are "ripe for it to get a foothold," he said."
Diana Rice, staff dietitian for the nonprofit organization, said the 15 percent reduction in meat consumption that results from Meatless Mondays is in line with most dietary guidelines for reducing the risk of heart disease and other ailments. There are also environmental reasons to reduce consumption of meat, she said, such as greenhouse gas emissions.
"Kids hear about things like global warming, and they ask, 'What can I do?' " Rice said. "This is an action step for them."
Using protein substitutes
The Wyandanch cafeterias use soy and pea protein substitutes for meat. Meals have include stir-fries, chili and sloppy joes, Usher said. So far, tacos have been one of the favorites, she said.
Brenda Sexton, head cook at the high school, said she was leery of the Meatless Mondays concept at first. "The kids here are not used to that kind of stuff," she said. "But we did it, and the kids said, 'Hey, that isn't so bad!' "
The key to winning over students, she said, was to get creative with spices and sauces, mixing the unfamiliar tofu with curry and Alfredo sauce. "We try to give them something different every week," she said.
While students were wary, Sexton said many have embraced the movement, commenting to her that they hope to lose weight. Sexton said Meatless Mondays even helped her shed some pounds, as she introduced new meatless recipes to her own family.
Some students still are not buying into it. "I can tell it's not what it's supposed to be," said Sinai Lopez, 17, on a recent Monday as he ate baked ziti with a pea protein that mimics ground beef.
Jessica Brooks and Desiree Coleman, both 18, said they like the concept. "They try to make it taste decent," Brooks said, with Coleman adding, "It's good enough to deal with." Besides, she said, "We still got four days a week to eat meat."
The new campaign hasn't fazed Jacob Blassingame, 17. The sophomore said his family has a history of diabetes, so he's trying to be more careful with what he eats. "It still tastes the same, it's still good," he said as he ate the ziti. "It's just a little bit healthier."