Veggie Day in Action

Posted by on June 29, 2010 | Permalink

It’s all well and good to talk about a weekly meat-free day, but what’s it like in practice for a hotel, restaurant or school – or an entire city? How would Meat-Free Monday work in a UK city? I went to Ghent, Belgium, to learn more.

My first stop is breakfast at one of Ghent’s most prestigious hotels – NH Gent Belfort, which was the first hotel to implement “Donderdag Veggiedag”. The meat-free programme has been going strong there for two months. “It was a marketing decision”, explains Mauro Desogus, the hotel’s food and beverage manager. “In a city like Ghent, it’s sometimes difficult to promote your restaurant. The choice of restaurants is huge, and most of the clients we had before were only hotel clients. They came to have lunch or dinner or meet over a business lunch. Now we have more and more local people coming to eat at our restaurant, and our restaurant is known as a restaurant, not a hotel restaurant.”

The hotel was recently awarded a Green Key label in recognition of its efforts to be environmentally responsible – from recycling and conserving water to using energy more efficiently and offering locally produced food. “The spirit of NH Hotels is to be in the market as eco hotels. I think vegetarianism can be part of this spirit”, explains Desogus.

The reaction from both clients and staff has been positive, and the hotel has shown a commitment to the initiative by serving its staff members 100 per cent vegetarian meals each Thursday. It’s about diversity in food – translating the hotel’s passion and offering customers the chance to discover vegetables they aren’t familiar with. “Promote it as a service”, advises Desogus. “If you can offer something else, you will increase your revenue.”

After popping into the tourist information centre and picking up a Veggie Day map, which highlights participating restaurants and cafés, I head over to the Francois Laureninstituut – a small primary school consisting of 152 pupils ages 6 to 12. As the children tuck into their vegetarian lunch, I notice the fruit and vegetable decorations hanging from the ceiling and the Donderdag Veggiedag posters on the wall. The school is clearly proud to be a part of the Thursday Veggie Day initiative, and it has done a lot of work to promote healthy eating. “It starts with the children and feeds up”, explains Marleen Cloetens, the school’s head teacher. She finds that once the children get behind an idea, they impart their enthusiasm to their parents, and soon the whole school is on board.

The pupils are also having lunch at my next stop, Freinetatheneum De Wingerd, a large secondary school within walking distance of the city centre. The school has 430 pupils ages 12 to 18, and of these, about 40 eat a school lunch on Thursdays. Currently, pupils and staff members are not impressed with the food that’s served either on Thursdays or other days, as it is prepared off-site in huge quantities and then delivered to the school to be heated up. “It just doesn’t look appealing”, one of the pupils explains. However, pupils say that when they get the chance to cook their own vegetarian food in cookery lessons, they enjoy it a lot more. Ethical Vegetarian Alternative, the organisation that started Donderdag Veggiedag, are keen to have the school meals improved.

An evening meal takes place at Huis van het Kind, a city-centre boarding school with 50 pupils ages 3 to 18. Some of the pupils come from broken homes, so the time that they spend at school is a very important part of their lives. All food is cooked on-site, and today the pupils are eating vegetarian moussaka made from aubergine. The younger children get involved in Thursday Veggie Day by preparing some of the food themselves; for example, they cut up fruit to make a fruit salad. As for the older children, one group tells me that their favourite vegetarian foods are veggie burgers, seitan, corn on the cob and bean sprouts. When I ask why the school is participating, the pupils seem unclear and feel the issues should be discussed more in order to raise awareness. “Pictures are not enough”, says one girl who once saw a video about animal slaughter and felt that it gave her a better understanding of how meat is produced on today’s factory farms. Another pupil mentioned being inspired by celebrities.

And so ends a typical Donderdag Veggiedag. During my walk through the city centre, I notice more than one restaurant with chalk boards promoting Veggie Day options. A year on from the initial launch, the programme is definitely still going strong! It’s positive and not pushy. City residents and tourists have the opportunity to save animals, help protect the environment, combat global poverty and improve their own health by eating a variety of good vegetarian foods in restaurants and hotels, while schools have the opportunity to introduce global citizenship issues into the classroom while promoting healthy eating. As far as I can see, it’s a win-win situation – wouldn’t it be great if a city in the UK got this going too?