Sid Lerner, Meatless Mondays



Part I: Sid Lerner
Meatless Mondays

Sid Lerner is founder and chairman of The Monday Campaigns, with national health behavior initiatives such as Meatless Monday, Healthy Monday, and Kids Cook Monday, in association with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Syracuse University Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is a member of the Board of Advisors of the Mailman School, has been a guest lecturer at the Bloomberg School and founded the Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion at Maxwell.

Lerner, a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, is the marketing guru who worked with the creative team behind the “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin” advertising campaign. He now uses his marketing prowess to advance public health, encouraging people to exercise more and to eat healthier through The Monday Campaigns, which has become a global force in the fight against preventable disease.


Hello I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. This is a lovely March 5th 2013 and you know what, it’s a Tuesday, a Tuesday, but you know what? We’re not going to talk about Tuesdays today, we’re going to talk about Monday, Monday, so good to me (sings)…we’re talking about Mondays and the Monday Campaigns and Meatless Monday and I’m going to bring on my first guest Sid Lerner, the Founder and Chairman of the Monday Campaigns, with national health behavior initiatives such as Meatless Monday, Healthy Monday, and Caregivers Monday in association with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Syracuse University Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is a member of the Board of Advisors of the Mailman School, has been a guest lecturer at the Bloomberg School and founded the Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion at Maxwell and it goes on and on. He’s an author and a very creative guy. Please welcome Sid Lerner to It’s All About Food.  Hi Sid.

SID LERNER: Hi, glad to be here.

CARYN HARTGLASS: You know I’m just looking over your bio and you are one renaissance guy. It’s like there’s nothing you haven’t done.

SID LERNER: You hang around for 82 years you get to do a lot of things.

CARYN HARTGLASS: Bless you. I know a lot of 82-year-olds that can’t hold a candle unfortunately and I think it has something to do with what they eat.

SID LERNER: Ten years ago I sort of got into a better mode of eating. We started a Meatless Monday idea at Johns Hopkins and one of the triggers of doing it was we were told we were eating too much meat and too much fat in the diet. I was put on Lipitor.

CARYN HARTGLASS: Who told you you were eating too much meat?

SID LERNER: My wife and everybody else. The USDA, the FDA and the others really did various national surveys on American health it was we were eating over 15% of what we ought to be eating of this fat heavy diet which led to heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes so how do you cut down 15%? You can’t watch every plate,  it occurred that 15% of 21 meals is three meals and that’s like one day’s worth. So make it simple, just one day a week knock off the fat and the meat in the diet. You sort of make a dent in it as you should, the easy way just one day a week try to catch up on other good things that aren’t meat in the middle of the plate. So that was the beginning of Meatless Monday.

CARYN HARTGLASS: It’s a really great idea because—now I’m a vegan and I promote an all plant-based diet but I encourage people to reduce the animal products in their diet and with so many people when you say that to them then you get that deer in the headlights look. They don’t even know what they’re eating and they can imagine not eating meat. Can’t imagine it. The idea of starting on Monday with being meatless is a great way to open the door and make people realize that there’s a lot of wonderful food out there that’s good for us that doesn’t have to come from an animal.

SID LERNER: I must say minds weren’t quite that open as you just spoke it ten years ago frankly. A little more resistance then but now it’s unbelievable the degree to which organizations are. I guess the larger bodies are what people call flexitarians more open to adding non-meat dishes to the diet. So it’s either a vegetarian who has meat sometimes or a meatatarian that has opened its mind to nonmeat dishes here and there so the country’s really changing. See incremental changes happening, even the chains people are cutting down on burgers and meat buying. Our research is showing that it’s starting to take hold because of the economy, because of more and more medical information coming in tying heavy meat diet to very serious chronic diseases. It’s been a long time in coming but boy it’s starting to rain now. It’s not just a drizzle of converts.

CARYN HARTGLASS: It really is exciting. Now you got this idea—Meatless Mondays—from post-war or World War II propaganda material and things that the country was going through at that time?

SID LERNER: Yes, I was a boy scout in World War II and one of the things President Roosevelt did to help us conserve meat for the troops…he dug up an old thing from World War I called Meatless Monday that Herbert Hoover suggested to the President in 1918 and they came up with Meatless Monday, Wheatless Wednesday, it was sort of an interesting idea of how to conserve those hard-to-get items then. Roosevelt dug it up in World War II and then Harry Truman in the post-war years helped feed Europe, initiated Meatless Monday again so I remembered it from way back and I said “that’s a great name for what we’re doing” and we dusted it off and re-purposed it. So Meatless Monday is the day you cut back on meat for your health, the environment and the planet.

CARYN HARTGLASS: We have more and more information from scientific studies that are showing the importance of reducing meat in the diet. But I think even back then when these different campaigns to save meat for the soldiers showed that those that were reducing their meat content were actually getting healthier–even back then we saw the results.

SID LERNER: That’s true. People backed into some good habits for unusual reasons and we re-purposed them.

CARYN HARTGLASS: I met you recently at the James Beard Foundation. We were both at the Wenonah Hauter book signing for her book Foodopoly which was a really interesting event. She talks about so many things that are wrong with our food system today. And I wanted to talk about one section of that. I see there’s like three things going on. One is things with our individual lifestyle/culture, etc. then there’s the government regulating different things, making some foods more affordable some things less affordable, making some businesses easier than others and then there’s marketing, that’s really telling us what we’re supposed to be doing and I know that you have a lot of experience in that area—marketing and advertising. How much of that has an impact on what we’re eating today.

SID LERNER: It has a huge, huge impact. As a matter of fact, I think we really could learn from it. It’s like being…you know you can’t be crabby being a do-gooder, having the right information and good things to do and just sit there smugly. It’s like having two stores and one’s having all the people run in and the other’s not. Look what the other guy’s doing to get them to come in, some smart merchandising, communication, motivating and the people with the good stuff aren’t quite utilizing the same tools to bring them in the store. That’s what the Monday campaign is trying to do, Johns Hopkins and Syracuse and Columbia is to start bringing more contemporary marketing media social networking procedures to sell the good stuff and help counteract the very sophisticated marketing tools that get us to line up for all those extra soft drinks and all those extra calories we consume during the day that we didn’t fifty or sixty years ago. When I was a kid you had to walk blocks and blocks in a town like Inglewood where I grew up to find a diner or luncheonette. Now there’s like three sushi bars and two McDonalds every acre. There’s so much food you have to run the gauntlet. It’s a major challenge to people’s strength of character to just get through the day not stopping along the way too many times.

CARYN HARTGLASS: Yeah, it really is too easy. I institute a number of things in my life that I think people would think are really nutty–but people have always thought I was nutty so I’m kind of used to it—we don’t have a car, and we walk to the stores to get our food and carry the heavy bags back and the few times that we do eat out we tend to walk and there’s one restaurant that I like in particular that’s not very close by and it takes an hour to walk there but I like the idea of walking, exercising and then getting my treat and then walking it off.

SID LERNER: It’s a funny thing that today we call that walk where you live as a food desert I think. You keep reading the paper somebody in Timbuktu gets up at 6 o’clock in the morning to walk five miles to get a jug of water for the house and here we can’t walk more than a quarter of a mile to buy some groceries. I don’t know, but anyway, food is much too available. Too many times in parts of the day you get two hamburgers and two Egg McMuffins for $3 in the morning, then you get to the office and somebody brought in a box of donuts, then Josie’s birthday cake leftovers, then at lunch you get two burgers for $6 and then you get a break in the afternoon. Stuff is there constantly, it’s in your face so it’s really a strain on our normally weak wills to not take part in it. That’s the tough part, to get motivated to know the downsides of it and the upsides of the alternatives.

CARYN HARTGLASS: Well, I really think if we could invest enough to take over the media and the marketing and put out the right message instead of the wrong message I think most people would go along.

SID LERNER: We think Meatless Monday is an example of something that is packaged in a way that’s so simple, so reputable of something to do, one day a week knock off the meat, you could package other behaviors. We have the Monday Meals just to get something started. That’s not a be-all, end-all but the idea of getting the week started with something good is better than zero. I think we just have to start doing a better job of reducing the positive things into more contemporary acceptable ways.

CARYN HARTGLASS: So there’s Meatless Monday and I see you have a website and you have all kinds of articles, tools and information and you’re working with schools or there are some schools that specifically promote and support the Meatless Monday? How does that work?

SID LERNER: We have hundreds of schools, universities, colleges and campuses around the country, one just came on today in Washington, they just instituted the Meatless Monday counters one day a week. If you go to our website you’ll see the list of them. We also, through companies like Sodexo which feeds 6300 cafeterias in the country every day, 900 hospitals, 2000 corporations and they do Meatless Mondays in their cafeterias.

CARYN HARTGLASS: Does that mean they offer meatless options or are they completely meatless?

SID LERNER: No we are not trying to get meat off the menu. We make it very clear to every institution or school or restaurant that we go to we do not want to get meat off the menu, we just want to get alternatives on the menu. Sometimes you can’t see anything that doesn’t have meat or beef crumbles or something, even the ice cream, so the concept with Meatless Monday is to just offer consumers visibly something on the menu that is not a meat product as an alternative you can try Monday. Hopefully if you dig it, try it Tuesday and Wednesday as well. So we do not try that because that just builds up needless resistance. We’re about choice.

CARYN HARTGLASS: It’s just an incredible thing how people want to keep their head in the sand and really want to resist things that are so good for them and once they move over to that and realize it’s not only good for them but tastes good. There’s no down side, in my opinion of eating more plant foods and less animal foods. Fortunately like you said, people are becoming more receptive than they used to but there’s still plenty of people who are resisting.

SID LERNER: It’s a funny thing the culture is really where and when you live. As I’ve told you I’ve got this great age number, I go back a couple of decades and we didn’t always eat like this. Most people we work with and see in the streets are in their twenties and thirties, in their lifetime it’s always been like this virtually. The hamburger places started in 1953 which is when McDonalds…by 1967 they were 20,000 now there’s 35,000 of them. So young people think it’s always been like that, that every place you go there is lots of food, always people eating like that. Meat used to be a condiment, spaghetti and meatballs. Chinese, Japanese foods had a touch of meat. It was the center of the plate but it was an addition to other foods and vegetables and our society just jumped to the filet. The hamburger is there, the steak is there, the chops are there. We think this is the way people have always eaten. I think it’s a matter of reigning back a little bit and showing that there are alternatives, options of foods we used to eat that we have to re-examine with better cooking technologies. By the way, speaking of Wenonah Hauter and her wonderful book Foodopoly, we just got a note that says it’s like number one or number two on Amazon’s booklists.

CARYN HARTGLASS: Oh that’s good news. I was just going to mention her book again too because as you were saying we didn’t always eat this much meat. She goes over the history, the contemporary history, of how we got to where we are today and it’s really good to review that. You know I lived through most of it and it really was powerful to see how we let this happen, where we are today. I really enjoyed reading that book. I’m glad other people are reading it. OK, now you also have a Kids Monday? How is that different from Meatless Mondays?

SID LERNER: Kids Cook Monday is a group called CASA, Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, that has research that shows that kids who eat with their families a couple times a week are 40-50% less likely to be addictive personalities or abusive personalities or obese. In fact, it’s also a good socialization thing so we fostered the idea of having kids at least once a week help the parents make the dinner as a way of communing with the parents also seeing that meat food doesn’t just come in a box with a toy. I think there’s more of that happening. Michelle Obama has certainly made it visible with the gardens on the White House lawn. More and more schools, the Baltimore School System, Tony Geraci, did a wonderful job there, 70,000 school kids have Meatless Monday every Monday in Baltimore and they have a two acre farm outside the town where kids go to see where they plant the vegetables, then harvest them and winds up in their cafeterias. So they idea of seeing where food comes from, getting involved with the making of it, gets you more involved in liking things you never would have touched otherwise and it’s a good healthy sign all around. We promote Kids Cook Monday and have recipes, things that kids can do and it’s a big help to mother. We’re trying to get into summer camps this year as a way of introducing it as an activity.

CARYN HARTGLASS: Oh good. It’s such a good idea all around. I’m always saying that people need to find their kitchen because so many of us have lost our knack for cooking or maybe never had it and the kitchen doesn’t seem to be a place that’s really used for what it’s supposed to be used for which is preparing nourishing food. I know a lot of parents are somewhat hesitant to prepare food with their children because they have very little time and it seems like so much trouble but I think the benefits really outweigh the downsides of it.

SID LERNER: It’s good economics too these days, cooking. By the way, the kids website of its own is as well as, … you can go and get recipes other wonderful hints and helpers and tips.

CARYN HARTGLASS: Kids Cook Monday, that’s good. Now you mentioned there are different schools and organizations that have signed up for Meatless Monday. Are there any places that haven’t caught on? Is this campaign appealing to all demographics around the country? You know we talk sometimes about how privileged some of us are to be able to choose what we eat and then there are some areas where people are just getting by and getting whatever they can. So I’m just wondering, is this something that appeals to a certain demographic?

SID LERNER: Let me just say that the terrible irony is that for the first time in the history of man on the planet that more people are dying from eating too much than starvation. The chronic diseases of heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes is a direct result of behavior at the table. Eating too much of the wrong stuff and not doing enough of the vigorous exercise it takes to balance things out. So you’ve got half the world starving, the other half over eating, so let’s level the field. Every town we go to there’s great enthusiasm now for bringing on but of course the same people, it’s like the NRA, with their rifles, you have people who are resistant, they have the right to a chop in one hand and a steak in the other hand every minute of the day who do look at it as an imposition on their civil rights or something. There is some push back in areas from people who think they are being told what to do, like the people who were against the soda limitations and every other…. We forget that cars have speed limits and have safety rules and regulations and liquor laws and all that. Food has been such a scarce commodity over most of our lifetimes that people aren’t used to the idea of curtailing some parts of it and I think we’re going to see a little more of that in the future.

CARYN HARTGLASS: Well, you know that’s where advertising comes in again because a lot of these people that you’re talking about who don’t want us to regulate our food, they want to know they have free choice, they don’t realize they are being so manipulated by advertising that they don’t have the free choice that they think they do.

SID LERNER: There is some of that but one of the good things about being old you get to see a wider range of history first hand. People forget that advertising and promotion were responsible for some of the things we do every day that are healthy as hell and we take for granted. Baths, we hardly ever used to take baths, or maybe cowboys would come into town on Saturday night and go to the bathhouse before church the next day or something but it was Lifebuoy Soap that created the villain—body odor. Don’t have BO and made the public so conscious of body odor, BO, the villainous thing, that everybody was soon in the shower daily or tubs and all that. Similar brushing your teeth wasn’t exactly the thing that people did. It was not having bad breath, halitosis, that was branding and advertising that identified the villainous thing among us that people finally did something about it in a big way. So brushing the teeth and taking a bath are two very positive social hygienic things and that came from advertising. The trick is how do we put those same clever marketing forces against some of the other things we should do about—exercising and driving, and drinking and texting—that’s a challenge a lot of young people looking to go into some fields should consider health marketing.

CARYN HARTGLASS: Yes, advertising is so powerful and can be used to really good ends.

SID LERNER: Today’s media—talk about the nag-ability—you can come at people more ways now than ever before in the world without buying a network buy at billions of dollars to hit a small percentage of the country. You could do something that comes up on everybody’s cell phone or mobile device, it’s just remarkable how frequently and locally you can reach the public today if the message is right, simple and persuasive.

CARYN HARTGLASS: I think that’s why the Meatless Monday concept and a lot of other organizations that are promoting healthier diets are having more success because of the power of social networking and it’s a lot easier and a lot more cost effective to get the message out and for those people that are looking the information is easier to find. I remember 20, 30 years ago looking for information and it was really an effort.

SID LERNER: I think we’re really at a major revolutionary point with the media change going from the old media print to online is such a new challenge and an opportunity. It’s like a gold rush everybody could go out and stake a claim now. Everything isn’t all tied down now by ABC, CBS or NBC like that. Anybody could be a star now if the idea is right and you’ve got a good message and you’re doing it well.

CARYN HARTGLASS: So the Monday Campaign the Meatless Monday is growing and more people are signing on, celebrities and regular people. What I mentioned before, this three-tiered concept of how we’re going to improve our health—marketing, individuals and the third piece of that is government. I know that the USDA kind of flubbed up last year…a bit….saying something that they didn’t mean to say…

SID LERNER: I was a little embarrassed for them I’m afraid. A couple senators…one guy got on the senate floor for four and a half minutes haranguing the USDA for doing Meatless Monday.

CARYN HARTGLASS: So let’s back up a little bit because I’m sure not everybody knows about it but at some point the USDA was going to endorse perhaps….?

SID LERNER: Well, as I said through Sodexo and other wonderful food providers the companies in cafeterias are taking on Meatless Mondays as an idea and some wonderful in-house news writer or writer at the USDA was writing in their weekly issue of something–it was so nice the cafeteria was taking on Meatless Monday the following week. I guess it leaked out to some political individual who said “my God, we’re part of the USDA, what are they doing telling people not to eat our meat” and they just went off with about eight Senators in meat-growing states and they really had a rant going for a week or so about …

CARYN HARTGLASS: It was really unfortunate. A lot of people had a good time at blogging about it and writing articles about it. I like to say a lot don’t read your press, weigh it, and it probably brought a lot more attention to Meatless Mondays.

SID LERNER: That’ll happen so you have to be careful what you say. It’s a knife that cuts both ways.

CARYN HARTGLASS: Right. You have a quote here on the website, you have a recent post about chili. Did you really say “if you think chili really needs meat, you don’t know beans”?

SID LERNER: That’s one of our lines we’ve been using for beating the heck out of … If you think chili needs meat you don’t know beans.

CARYN HARTGLASS: Did you come up with that?

SID LERNER: I’ll have to admit to it, yeah. But basically it’s a great idea. There’s so many ways to make chili and meat is not necessarily a part of it. It’s a wonderful source of protein. It’s inexpensive, it can be tasty, it can be sexy, it can be smoky. So we have a cookbook that’s available free online called “The Chili Cookbook”. I think it’s ten great chili recipes you can download and the next ten Mondays taken care of. We also have another cookbook called “Monday Burgers” which we re-named “Hamburgers without Meat”, there’s a cookbook—“Monday Burgers, One Day a Week Get the Beef Off Your Buns”

CARYN HARTGLASS: Well Meatless Monday has certainly benefited having you at the reins.

SID LERNER: We’ve got a whole bunch of funny people here. We have Marc Driscoll next door, we got Vanessa Protass getting the stuff all over the world, on e-mails and Facebook and Twitters and Tweets, and things I can’t even pronounce but a bunch of great young kids here who are into new media and just getting it out all over the place. It’s really been terrific.

CARYN HARTGLASS: Now Meatless Monday, is it global?

SID LERNER: Oh yeah, I’m looking at a chart that says “Meatless Monday Goes Global”, “Now in 22 Countries and Counting”. I just sent an e-mail last night commending somebody in Australia for their meat-free Mondays there so they’ll keep it up. Next thing they came back this morning on our Facebook saying “thank you very much, g’day”. Israel just took on a new group out of Tel Aviv doing Meatless Monday there. We’re in the Phillipines. As I said 22 countries are coming on, keep doing their own way a lot of them. Paul McCartney helps start through Europe. He did Meat-Free Monday in the UK.

CARYN HARTGLASS: It’s always good to have him on your team.

SID LERNER: Oh boy, is there a good guy to have. He has a wonderful cookbook out to have from his group called “Meat Free Monday Cookbook”. It got an award recently. So we commend that to you. And we get people from other countries doing it. We haven’t contacted these people, they just got it offline from having seen ours and things that look like ours. It’s really growing like crazy.

CARYN HARTGLASS: That’s nice especially because many developing nations learn a lot of our bad habits. I would like to think if there’s a country that’s leading the way and has learned from mistakes that the other countries that are coming up to speed will skip over all the bad moves. Unfortunately we don’t see that per se, we see people in India and China that are becoming more affluent they are including more animal products in their diet and diabetes is up and heart disease and places that we never saw before.

SID LERNER: We’ve got this great president, Peggy Neu, she came aboard about five years ago and things really livened up and she’s speaking pretty soon at a joint American-Chinese group on nutrition and things where women can get behind, better habits and we’re using us on the panel as an example so Peggy‘s … doing that as well as speaking up a storm around the country to other organizations. So really getting the message out. More people are inviting us to talk to them and they’ve got more people here on staff and at our sister schools—Columbia, Syracuse and Johns Hopkins. They are all pushing together so it’s really a big rolling stone.

CARYN HARTGLASS: Well that’s really good to hear. Some of the basic things that countries can do is stick to their cultural foods and more and more have taken on this God-awful standard American diet. I’m glad to hear that some people are connecting with you and your great message. I want to thank you for joining me on It’s All About Food. I’ve enjoyed hearing a little bit more about Meatless Mondays and here’s to every Monday being meatless. Add more to that and I’ll be even happier.

SID LERNER: Thanks so much for the air time, it’s really been terrific

Transcribed 3/15/2013 by Suzanne Kelly

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