When she first started canvassing the country seven years ago, urging school districts, military bases and other big buyers to buy and serve less meat, Kristie Middleton got used to people rolling their eyes at her. Years before the federal government and physicians began suggesting that we do just that, the idea of eating fewer (or smaller) burgers was unpopular. In some places it was even considered un-American.
But the less-is-more mantra has slowly become a winning slogan for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), where Middleton is the senior director of food policy. Making #MeatlessMonday into both a health trend and an environmental initiative was only a part of the organization’s efforts to change minds—and corporate practices—across America.
During her tenure, Middleton has helped convince 200 school districts, including those in red meat capitals of the country like Kansas City, as well as the U.S. Army, Air Force, and Coast Guard to serve tens of millions of plant-based meals. In a political climate where such changes are more likely to come from individuals than international agreements, Middleton’s work to continue spreading the meatless message is as instructive as it is inspirational.
Middleton, 39, lives in Oakland, California, and began eschewing eggs, and later meat, from a young age because of her concern for animals. Her book touches on her personal convictions but encourages readers to consider the other reasons for making plants rather than animals the center of meals, including health and environmental concerns.
Civil Eats talked to Middleton about her work at HSUS, the time she spends with her parents’ chickens in Virginia, and her recent book, MeatLess: Transform the Way You Eat and Live—One Meal at a Time.
What have you learned trying to get institutions to serve less meat? What has helped sway them?
I would say there are a few main selling points: saving money is certainly compelling, along with increasing profitability. Being able to offer variety and to introduce new foods that are healthful is another.
The Menus of Change conference, a project of the Harvard School of Public Health and the Culinary Institute of America, is devoted to encouraging restaurateurs, chefs, and others in the food industry to serve more healthful and sustainable menus. Many of their recommendations center on plant-forward menus, moving meat to the side and vegetables to the center and so on. It’s becoming much more imperative for the food industry either to respond to the growing demand or to be more socially responsible corporate citizens.
We’re seeing things happen at the institutional level that, had you told me even a few years ago were going to happen, I would not have believed it.
Kansas City Public Schools are doing Meatless Monday. And we’ve worked with over 200 school districts—including the L.A. Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, serving 700,000 meals every day. Their former director, with whom I worked, said if they can do it there, we can do it anywhere.
At Detroit Public Schools, they discovered that they could save money with a meatless day and started doing two of them a week. I’ve also worked with Dallas and Fort Worth school districts in Texas, so it’s not just happening on the coasts but in places at the center of the country.
How has the Humane Society been involved in spreading the Meatless Monday trend?
Our main tenet has been to find ways to reduce the suffering of animals who are in the worst conditions. We realized that there’s simply no way to get to what we’re working toward without reducing the overall amount of meat consumed. We’re eating over 100 pounds of meat per person (per year) in the United States—and that’s not sustainable for our planet, it’s not good for our heath and it’s causing tremendous animal suffering.
Meatless Monday was started by the U.S. government during World War I as a resource-saving effort and brought back during World War II. In 2003, the Monday Campaigns teamed up with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to rebrand it as a public health and sustainability initiative. It was getting attention from bloggers and thought leaders and a couple of school districts—so we approached more of our institutional partners about incorporating it.
How does your book help individuals scale up the concept of plant-based meals beyond a once-a-week habit?
Around 3.4 percent of the American population is vegetarian, and that’s self-reported. That represents such a small proportion of the people who are out there, but there are estimates that 47 percent of the U.S. population is eating meat-free once a week.
I wanted to provide a resource for people who want to do something but are not sure how to take the next step. I try to encourage those who may be brand new to the concept to try Meatless Monday, if they’re already doing those, to take it up to a meatless Monday-through-Friday or Vegan Before 6, like Mark Bittman suggests. It’s really about meeting people where they’re at and giving them the resources and support to get to the next level.
You start the book talking about the treatment of egg-laying chickens, which feels unexpected. When most people consider laying off the meat, they leave eggs on the table. Was this intentional?
Egg-laying hens endure so much suffering because of the intensive confinement [on many egg farms]. I also now have a more personal relationship with chickens. In addition to those who live with my family (in Suffolk, Virginia), I also have a neighbor who has two chickens. I’ve come to know them as individuals who have these huge personalities.
What are some of the obstacles to meatless eating?
One of them is your community. People eat like their friends and family, and they go back to eating meat because they don’t have any support. There are some people who are able to go it alone and others who find it very difficult. One of the recommendations I make is to try to get your friends and family to join you in some way. Another obstacle is perception. I think that people don’t really have any idea about nutrition. They don’t know what to eat. [In the book], I try to dispel common myths and share some of the most important things with respect to nutrition.
You’re a vegan. Why encourage your readers to eat less meat instead of giving it up entirely?
In doing this work with institutions, I find so many people who are open to this concept of one small step—which we know, collectively, can add up to make a huge difference. But if I were to go in and ask them to switch their menu to vegan, I’m sure many of them would say it’s just not practical.
Personally, I didn’t do it all at once. When I was a little girl, I stopped eating eggs and, many years later, I became vegetarian. Then, a year and a half later, I became vegan. I think a lot of advocates have this all-or-nothing mentality when they have a lightbulb moment, but I haven’t met a lot of people who have gone fully vegan overnight.
It’s far more sustainable and realistic for people to make gradual changes. Every meat-free meal is going to have a positive impact on the planet and on animals.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kristi Middleton photo credit: Michelle Cehn.