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Meatless Monday is not a new idea.

In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson galvanized the nation with voluntary meatless days during World War I, and thus Meatless Monday (and Wheatless Wednesday) were born. Under the slogan “Food Will Win The War,” the campaign worked beyond expectations, as the country reduced its national meat consumption by 15%.

A decade later, in 1929, Saturday Evening Post article observed that, “Americans began to look seriously into the question of what and how much they were eating. Lots of people discovered for the first time that they could eat less and feel no worse – frequently for the better.” And once again, during World War II, Presidents Roosevelt and Truman turned to rationing to help feed war-ravaged Europe.

In 2003, Meatless Monday was re-launched, but with an altogether different mission. Today, the goal of Meatless Monday is not to feed an army, but to inform a nation.

“It was one of those dumb accidents of marketing,” says Sid Lerner, public health advocate, former ad man, and Chairman and Founder of The Monday Campaigns. While attending a health conference at the Johns Hopkins Center Bloomberg School of Public Health, Lerner, who at the time was just put on a prescription for Lipitor to reduce his cholesterol levels, asked what could be done to improve the nation’s health. Robert Lawrence, Dean of Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, replied: “If we eat 15% less meat, we’d be a lot healthier.”

Recalling the Meatless Monday campaigns from generations past, Lerner, in association with Johns Hopkins, the Mailman School of Public Health of Columbia University, and with the backing 30 other schools of public health, had an idea: could Meatless Monday be re-launched as a health campaign for a generation that, for the first time in our history, grew up with processed, packaged and, equally troublesome, abundant amounts of food.

“Our public health crisis is self-inflicted,” says Lerner. “We never had more food in our history, and never at such a low cost.” The result has been skyrocketing rates of disease linked to the state of the American diet. “It’s very simple. It’s the behavior. We used to get sick from genes and germs. Now, 60-70% of Americans die from non-communicable diseases. Heart disease. Stroke. Obesity. Diabetes. Our illnesses are mostly self-inflicted.”

Over the next five years, Meatless Monday’s simple message of “one day a week, cut out the meat” spread across America. College students were early adopters, as campuses became the home to Meatless Chili cook-offs. BOCA Burger became the first food company to use Meatless Monday to promote their line of vegetarian offerings. Fresh Direct began featuring Meatless Monday on digital and in-store promotions. Jenny Craig added Meatless Monday to their weekly newsletter. And the Center for a Livable Future released two reviews of the cultural significance of Monday and the effectiveness of periodic prompts in health promotion while, simultaneously, food writer Kim O’Donnel began a weekly Meatless Monday column in the Washington Post.

In 2009, best-selling author and food advocate Michael Pollan endorsed Meatless Monday during the Oprah Winfrey show, introducing the concept of cutting meat once a week to millions of viewers. And after the city of Ghent, Belgium, became the first city to officially embrace Meatless Monday, Paul McCartney launched the campaign in the U.K., called “Meat Free Monday.” The idea was going global, and soon countries from Jamaica to Japan pledged their commitment to the movement.

Back in the States, Mario Batali became one of the first nationally-recognized chefs to announce his support. Hospitals, worksites and food service companies like Sodexo, which serves 9.3 million meals a day, are using Meatless Monday to share healthy, inspired dishes with their clientele. And the City of Baltimore became the first school system to join Meatless Monday, leading the way for thousands of schools and college campuses that serve healthier options to students every Monday.

What started as a simple idea in 2003 is now a global movement of individuals, schools, restaurants, hospitals, food service companies, corporations and whole communities across the U.S. and in 29 countries around the world. And yet, the message remains exactly as it did in 2003. “Meatless Monday is a health campaign,” Lerner says assuredly. “That’s why we started. We want to provide information that says by cutting out meat once a week, we can improve our health, reduce our carbon footprint, and lead the world in the race to reduce climate change.”

Which means in the battle against a range of diseases, and in the battle to protect the planet, once again, food will win the war.