SAN DIEGO (CBS 8) - The San Diego Unified School District Board of Education voted 4-1 to implement meat-free menus on Mondays at some school cafeterias beginning this fall.
The "Meatless Mondays" menus in cafeterias in elementary and kindergarten through eighth grade schools were proposed by school board President John Lee Evans and Trustee Kevin Beiser.
They said nearly 28 percent of children in San Diego County are overweight or obese, making them more susceptible to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and other ailments. They also cited a United Nations study finding that the meat industry creates one-fifth of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
"Our job is to improve our students' prospects for a healthy, happy and successful life," Beiser said. "Learning how to make good food choices is an essential component."
Gary Petill, the district's food services director, said at least one vegetarian option was offered in schools each day, which 22 percent of elementary school students picked. Vegetarian chili was among the most popular menu items, he said.
"We certainly have many meatless options already, and this is just one more way to reinforce healthy eating starting at a very young age," Evans said.
UC San Diego, the University of San Diego and Los Angeles Unified School District have joined the Meatless Monday movement, according to Evans and Beiser.
Meatless Mondays also had backing from the Sierra Club, San Diego Green Party and Operation Samahan, a San Diego-based community health organization, called Meatless Mondays "an easy, effective way for our children to start the week with a focus on health and nutrition."
UC San Diego School of Medicine professor Dr. Larry Hansen said heart disease and stroke were among several ailments that could be linked to "eating too much meat."
"The diseases start in high school, even earlier, and they progress inexorably if you don't lower the risk factors," Hansen said.
Crawford High School teacher Jason Folkman said Meatless Mondays were in students' best interest, but shouldn't become "cheesy Mondays."
"We should be serving healthy nutrient-dense, plant-based vegetarian meals, and these meals should be designed to appealing to kids," Folkman said.
Trustee Scott Barnett, who cast the dissenting vote, said the concept was wonderful but raised concerns that the blanket policy could be implemented without proper analysis on how students would be affected, especially the some 60,000 children from low-income families who may only get meat at school.
Not everyone was on board with the board's decision. Parent Felicia Cox, who used to be vegetarian, questioned the move, considering San Diego school cafeterias already offer vegetarian options every day of the week.
"I would have liked to see people from the other side," Cox told News 8 after the board's vote. "People can choose not to eat meat if they want. As a political push, I have a problem with it."
Also at Tuesday night's meeting, the board voted unanimously to renew the charter for The Preuss School at UC San Diego, which serves mostly low-income urban youth and is annually ranked among the nation's top high schools.
The Meatless Mondays concept is not mandatory. Students who bring their lunch to school can eat meat every day of the week.
Meanwhile, the Meatless Monday's movement could possibly be adopted in San Diego middle and high schools in the next few years.