• Belgians are giving up blood sausage and beef stew for vegetables. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Around 50 per cent of Ghent's population go vegetarian on #ThursdayVeggieDay, which equates to taking about 8,500 cars off the road. Thanks to the initiative, 43 per cent of Belgians now eat less meat.
Yasmin Noone

19 Feb 2020 - 12:16 PM  UPDATED 19 Feb 2020 - 12:16 PM

As much of the Western world struggles with the big dietary and environmental task of reducing the amount of meat we regularly consume, one Flemish city in Belgium has successfully worked out an official answer.

Move aside #MeatFreeMondays. In the pretty port city of Ghent, located just under an hour’s drive from Brussels, it’s all about Thursday Veggie Day or as the locals call it, ‘Donderdag Veggiedag’.

But Thursday Veggie Day isn’t just something that carnivores do if they’re motivated enough to eat, cook or order vegetarian dishes once a week. Donderdag Veggiedag is a flexitarianism movement, where regular meat-eaters give up all meats (fish included) for 24 hours on a Thursday to do their part to fight climate change and be healthier.

The holistic campaign is coordinated by the Ethical Vegetarian Alternative (EVA) and backed by the city’s hospitality industry, the government’s health and environment departments, tourism bodies, hospitals, local businesses, universities, municipal schools and daycare centres.

“If all 243,000 inhabitants of Ghent participate in Thursday Veggie Day, they reach the same effect as when 19,000 cars are taken off the road,” Stad Gent (the City of Ghent) says in an official memo about Donderdag Veggiedag.

They’d also eat more vegetables and fruit: “if you do so, you will automatically eat more fibres, vitamins and minerals.”

Nena Baeyens from the EVA says around 50 per cent of the city’s population go vegetarian on Thursdays. She adds that around 120 Ghent restaurants currently observe vegetarianism every week by offering at least one exciting vegetarian dish on their Thursday menu.

“If all 243,000 inhabitants of Ghent participate in Thursday Veggie Day, they reach the same effect as when 19,000 cars are taken off the road.”

The City of Ghent also encourages restaurateurs and hotels to offer discounts or provide customers who eat vegetarian on Thursdays with a free cup of coffee.

“Thursday Veggies is well known amongst the inhabitants of Ghent,” Baeyens says. “Four out of five is familiar with the campaign, one out of three participates.”

How did vegetarianism become so popular in Ghent? 

Although the EVA started Thursday Veggie Day years ago, the campaign became enshrined in European political history when Tom Bathalzar, the city’s deputy-mayor for the Environment and Social Affairs officially declared ‘Veggie Day’ to be a thing on 13 May 2009.

Since then, Ghent has also gone on to challenge Belgium’s long-held reputation for meat consumption, rejecting the celebration of such national dishes like moules-frites (mussels and fries), coiled boudin (blood sausage) and Carbonade Flamande (beef stewed in beer) on Thursdays.

Around 15 restaurants in Ghent are now completely vegetarian. It’s for this reason that the city is vying to be crowned the vegetarian capital of Europe, with perhaps more vegetarian restaurants per capita than any other city in the world. Across Belgium, the cities of Hasselt, Mechelen, Eupen and Brussels also observe Thursday Veggie Day.

“Thursday Veggies has had a positive impact on the eating habits of its participants since it began,” Baeyens explains.

“Research shows that 43 per cent of Belgians now eat less meat thanks to Thursday Veggies. Around 40 per cent also eat vegetarian on other days of the week. 28 per cent of people became a vegetarian by starting with Thursday Veggies.”

Research shows that 43 per cent of Belgians now eat less meat thanks to Thursday Veggies.

Participation in Thursday Veggie Day is encouraged across the whole lifespan. Free veggie cooking classes are run in schools for parents and kids. All children aged between 18 months and 12 years are served a warm vegetarian lunch once a week. Parents of children who do not eat a warm meal at school are also informed about vegetarian sandwich options, and asked to skip meat-based fillings.

“Thursday Veggie wants to encourage people to eat vegetarian on Thursdays,” Baeyens says. “Rather than forcing people to eat meat-free, we want to inspire them in a positive way.”

The decrease of local meat consumption will certainly help Ghent to reach its ultimate goal: to become a climate-neutral city by 2050.

“Around 60 per cent of people [in Belgium] believe in the necessity to reduce meat consumption in the future and almost half of the population is willing to eat more vegetarian,” says Baeyens. “We are optimistic towards the future.”

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