By Anna Lothson
Pro-meat, anti-meat, vegetarian or vegan —no matter where people stand on the carnivorousness continuum, the question of if beef should be "what's for dinner" is becoming a topic of discussion in Oak Park.
The public comment portion of Monday's village board meeting brought out two doctors, a health-conscious resident and a high school student who advocated for the concept of Meatless Mondays to increase awareness about poor animal care, cheap meat manufacturing and what they perceive is a culture shift toward meat-lovers (where bacon is practically a side-salad to any meal).
Admittedly, two of the speakers weren't vegetarians, nor were most of the trustees who supported the concept later in the meeting, but the issue was brought to the board's attention Monday because it's expected to be the topic of discussion at an Oak Park board of health meeting next week. The commenters urged the village board to pass a resolution encouraging the concept of Meatless Mondays not as an anti-meat proposition, but more of an awareness campaign to both encourage local restaurants to offer more meatless options, and also to get people thinking about where their favorite slabs of meat come from.
Dr. Sujatha Ramakrishna, an Oak Park resident, said several communities including San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles have already bought into the concept. She thinks Oak Park's progressive mindset is ideal for the campaign.
"Oak Park is already known for being a community with a social conscience," she said. "Embracing Meatless Mondays would be another way for us to promote healthy eating and sustainable living in our village."
She cited the lifestyle change of former President Bill Clinton, who went vegan, giving up dairy and eggs to shake off potential heart disease. The American Medical Association, the doctor said, has produced much research about the health issues associated with antibiotics and large-scale meat production.
Cheryl Munoz, the co-founder of the Sugar Beet Co-Op in Oak Park, said she isn't vegetarian but is supporting the concept because of the shift in our food industry toward meat-eating habits. With some meats costing less than fresh vegetables, she said it's easy to see why it's over consumed.
"Meatless Mondays is a great start, but I'd actually prefer to call it mindful Mondays." she said. "It inspires our community to take a deeper look at our food system and to support programs that support community health, farms and the humane treatment of livestock."
Dr. Paul Schattauer, who operates The Green Medical Practice in Oak Park, also said he's researched the chronic illness, cancers and obesity linked to too much fatty meat. He also isn't a vegetarian, but said all evidence suggests the way we eat meat has changed and so must our lifestyles.
"We now have an explosion of research to show us exactly what the mechanism is to reverse these illnesses," he said. "Meatless Mondays I feel will raise a level of awareness that will make a difference. It's another tool. …I will write Meatless Mondays (prescriptions) for my patients."
During public comment, Village President Anan Abu-Taleb, who also liked the concept of Meatless Mondays, referenced a book written by a doctor, and simply asked: "Who argues that you should not eat anything that has a face or a mother," he said, with laughter in his voice as he posed the question.
OPRF senior Angelica Haennicke, who leads the vegetarian club at school, said the discussion about healthy food, or the lack thereof, is a constant buzz in the lunchroom. She agreed the "staple" of a high school diet may be a burger and fries, but she hopes the high school will bring more options than simply a wrap station for people who want healthier choices.
"We know what we should be eating, but we haven't been given the best tools to implement these skills," she said. The lack of protein options and the "unappetizing salads" offered aren't cutting it for those who seek meatless options, and she hopes support from the village could spark the high school to make a change.
"Though it might be met with opposition as some changes are, Meatless Mondays would prove to be an innovative part of the OPRF community," Haennicke said.
Although the item was simply a part of public comment, following the regular agenda trustees weighed in briefly on their thoughts. Of the board members who spoke about the concept, all except Peter Barber backed the concept. Barber thinks the idea is fine, but suggested the village leave it up to the board of health and not be overly involved since he didn't see it as a high priority for the village.
Trustee Adam Salzman reminded his colleague that the board of health doesn't involve much staff time and is a citizen run group. He, among other trustees, supported the concept. Salzman said he's (mostly) a vegetarian.
"I'm a vegetarian, except when I'm not," he said. "I have an occasional lapse."
The issue of Meatless Mondays was on a previous agenda for the board of health. The discussion was tabled for its May 28 meeting when the group is expected to hear about efforts by OPRF food service to encourage less meat consumption.
Oak Park to apply for federal TIGER grants
Once the U.S. Department of Transportation announced $474 million in available funding for the competitive Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants, Oak Park got its plans in gear.
The village has made two unsuccessful bids at previous rounds of TIGER grants on a similar project, but village officials hope the third time is the charm.
The deadline to apply for the grants is June 3, and the village board gave staff the approval needed to submit a proposal under its discretion. Due to the time crunch, the board had to approve this decision without knowing exactly how much staff would agree Oak Park could foot for the project.
The grant regulations specify that a proposal include a 20 percent local match for the project. Oak Park is putting together a plan to submit that involved public infrastructure investments around public transit in what's considered the Greater Downtown Districts in town. Village Manager Cara Pavlicek said this includes areas in dire need of repair that will be addressed over time, but could be done more quickly if Oak Park is awarded federal funding.
The maximum grant the village would pursue provides for an estimated $42 million total project costs, which would make Oak Park's match about $8.5 million. A higher local match, however, could strengthen the village's chances and may be a tactic village staff employs. Most projects aren't granted the maximum amount.
According to a village memo prepared by Assistant Village Manager Rob Cole, "based upon historical TIGER grant awards, it is more likely that the village could receive a grant for approximately 50 percent of the total project costs." In that event the local match would be approximately $4.25 million.
The local match can be offset, in part, by expenses that would have been funded through the village's capital budget, according to the memo. Fixing deteriorating infrastructure, whether it's aging streets, walkways or sewer projects, could all be components of the grant application. Streetscape and more pedestrian and bike friendly options could be other components.
The project's scope includes: Lake Street from Harlem to Euclid and public streets, north and south of Lake which connect public transportation to the Downtown Oak Park Business District, the Hemingway District (formerly The Avenue) and the Pleasant District. The village typically has an annual process of determining which public infrastructure projects to tackle to keep its districts "livable," "vibrant" and connected to public transportation. Securing TIGER grant funds, however, could speed that process up and leave money in the bank for Oak Park.