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Meat-free Monday lunches in Dripping Springs raise Staples’ hackles

A Dripping Springs school district pilot program designed to encourage kids to go without meat once a week during lunch has drawn the ire of state Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples.

Staples calls the move — christened “Meatless Mondays” — part of an “activist movement” that “seeks to eliminate meat from Americans’ diets seven days a week.”

“While we have plenty of room in the Lone Star State for vegetarians, we have no room for activists who seek to mandate their lifestyles on others,” he wrote in an opinion piece in the American-Statesman Monday.

The district’s Meatless Mondays program is meant to encourage healthy, environmentally conscientious eating, said John Crowley, who heads childhood nutrition services for the Hays County district and added the meat-free Monday menus to the district’s three elementary schools.

Crowley, a registered dietitian, said Meatless Mondays — which has its roots in a national public health campaign — had been on his radar for a few years. He said he adopted it after attending a Dallas seminar in 2013 organized by the Humane Society of the United States, an animal-rights group. The seminar included information on how hospitals and school districts were tamping down on their meat options. The Houston school district also has meat-free Mondays at some of its schools.

Fewer greenhouse gases, among other environmental benefits, are associated with the growing of vegetables over livestock.

On Monday, students at Dripping Springs’ three elementary schools could decide between a black-bean burrito, a bean-and-cheese burrito, vegetarian chili with cornbread, cheese nachos, baked potato with fixings, refried beans, baby carrots, sliced peaches and fresh fruit.

In other weeks, the Monday offerings include cheese sandwiches, cheese ravioli, spinach salad and vegetarian soups.

As agriculture commissioner, Staples is in charge of the agency that administers school lunch programs in Texas. This is not the first time Staples — who has received at least $116,000 in campaign contributions from beef and ranching interests since 2010 and whose office said he was unavailable for an interview on Monday — has lashed out against Meatless Mondays.

Two years ago, he called a U.S. Department of Agriculture message to encourage Meatless Mondays “treasonous.”

Leah Wilkinson, the Dripping Springs parent who brought the menu to the attention of the state Department of Agriculture, said her suspicions were raised when she learned of Meatless Mondays as she registered her child for first grade at Rooster Springs Elementary School in August.

“I know what Meatless Mondays really stand for — to end consumption of animal-based agricultural products — so I contacted the district” and traded voice mails with Crowley, she said, before contacting the Agriculture Department. “The agenda shouldn’t be pushed on our elementary school.”

Wilkinson — whose family is in the pork production business in Minnesota — said she, too, works in the agricultural sector doing government relations work for the animal-feed industry.

Her son, she said, eats the school-provided lunches Tuesdays through Fridays. On Monday, he ate a ham sandwich from home.

Eddie Garza, a Dallas-based food policy coordinator for the Humane Society, said the Meatless Mondays effort is in response to the public health problem of obesity and created to shine light on animal treatment at factory farms.

“We’re trying to help schools promote healthier options,” said Garza, who said the Dallas event, held at a Whole Foods, had about 50 attendees.

School lunch menus have long made for a political food fight. First Lady Michelle Obama ran into pushback after announcing efforts to limit animal proteins and dairy fats on school menus while encouraging the eating of more fruit, vegetables and whole grains.

“The last thing that we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids’ health,” Obama said in May, as Congress considered rolling back some of the reforms she had championed in 2010. “It’s unacceptable to me not just as First Lady, but as a mother.”

Rancher Amanda Radke, who blogs for Beef Magazine, noted: “The changes the First Lady is pushing on public schools don’t apply to her daughters Malia and Sasha, who attend a swanky private school that is exempt.”

Meatless Mondays were developed at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health as an awareness campaign.

Crowley said that before the Staples opinion piece was published, he had heard from a handful of parents during the first few weeks of the school year. Crowley said they were evenly split between showing support for Meatless Mondays and having suspicions that the program could be extended to other days.

“Are we having a war on meat in Dripping Springs? Definitely not,” said Crowley, who said he is not a vegetarian and who said that in his work as a clinical dietitian he distributes fliers from the Texas Beef Council promoting healthy cuts of meat. “We’re trying to think outside the box, and we serve a lot of Texas beef on our menus.

“We’ve had requests for more vegetarian options, and I thought, ‘Why don’t I give it a try and see how it’s received by kids?’”

He said there is no plan to expand the veggie-only menu to other days of the week.

In his opinion piece, Staples, who is not a nutritionist, said that Meatless Mondays will hurt low-income kids, “most likely depriving them of their only source of protein for the day.”

Crowley said no child is harmed by not having protein specifically from an animal source during one lunch each week. He said parents also have the option of packing lunch for their child any day of the week.

“Ultimately, we want to put out a product that kids are happy with that has a good nutritional value to it,” Crowley said.

The students in Dripping Springs will have tacos or fajitas on Wednesday to look forward to — and burgers on Thursday.

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