Sodexo's Meatless Mondays Give 'Where's the Beef' a New Meaning

Sodexo's Meatless Mondays Give 'Where's the Beef' a New Meaning

Have it your way, said Burger King, in a long-running ad campaign and paean to individualism.

No, have it our way, says Sodexo, the food service giant that is rolling out a program called -- gasp! -- Meatless Mondays to about 3,000 corporate cafeterias and hospitals across America.

"We make it very attractive, compelling and much easier than anything else to eat vegetarian," says Arlin Wasserman, Sodexo's vice president for sustainability.

The goal is simple: To promote healthy food choices that are also good for the planet. Raising beef, in particular, requires lots of land and water and produces more global warming pollution than growing the equivalent amount of calories from vegetables. [See my blogpost: How to "green" a hamburger] Eating less meat is one of the simplest things any of us can do for the environment.

The American Meat Institute won't like this idea, and unkind critics may note that Sodexo, a $8-billion-a-year global company, is based in France. But Meatless Monday is an American idea. It was developed in 2003 by a nonprofit group called The Monday Campaigns ("the day all health breaks loose!) with help from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. More recently, a government report called Healthy People 2010 called upon Americans to reduce their saturated fat intake by 15 percent. Most saturated fat comes from meat and high-fat dairy foods.

Sodexo first introduced Meatless Monday at about 900 hospitals, and recently extended the initiative to more than 2,000 corporate and government cafeterias, including those at Toyota, Northern Trust Bank and the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The response has been "overwhelmingly positive" so far, Arlin says, but it's not without challenges. Some of the company's chefs are being asked to go beyond their comfort zone because Sodoexo needs to come up with a variety of tasty, appealing, nutritious and filling vegetarian entrees. It's sponsoring a cookoff with the James Beard Foundation to generate new recipes.

"We're asking our chefs to be much more creative in the vegan and vegetarian space than they are accustomed to," Arlin said. "Some of the dishes have missed. We also need to make sure that for people who are used to eating meat, this doesn't feel like a step down -- like they didn't eat enough to get through the day."

Sodexo is engaged in what economists Cass Sunstein (now an Obama administration official) and Richard Thaler call "choice editing" in their excellent book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness. The idea is that governments and business will nudge, but not force,  people to make choices that are good for them.

As it happens, Meatless Mondays are not 100% meat-free. "If you poke around, you'll find a (turkey or ham) sandwich somewhere," Arlin says. But by prominently featuring meatless entrees, Sodexo is encouraging people to go veggie for that one meal.

Because Americans are big meat eaters (pun intended) and because we value our freedom to choose, I asked Arlin how he'd respond to the charge that Meatless Monday is a paternalistic, if not an unpatriotic, idea.

All food-service companies, restaurants and even supermarkets have to decide what foods to offer and promote, he replied.

"We're in the business of making choices," he said.  "Increasingly, we're making choices that reflect our concern and our clients and customers' concern about the environment, the ability of the world to feed itself in the future, and our own health."

Can diners be persuaded to give up burgers and fries for spinach lasagna or a tofu scramble? If they can, the impact could be significant. Sodexo serves about 10 million people every day in schools, colleges and prisons, as well as hospitals and corporate locations. Imagine if some of those people decided to go meatless for a couple of days a week, or more.

By the way, Sodexo operates concessions in sports arenas, too. But the company has no intention, thank goodness, of taking hot dogs out of the hands of baseball fans.

Top photo CC-licensed by sweetonveg.