The following excerpt is from the 2019 Fall/Winter issue of Sanctuary, Farm Sanctuary’s print magazine
Written by Brennan Kilbane
In case you’re not familiar with it, we’ll get right to the point: Burger King’s Impossible Whopper tastes like beef. In fact, placed next to Burger King’s regular Whopper, the Impossible Whopper is nearly indistinguishable. Their proximity makes a poetic suggestion: Things are not always as they seem; and things that look, outwardly, like symbols of cruelty and environmental blight can actually abide by one of the strictest ethical codes in the history of the human race (especially, if you decline mayonnaise).
It also makes a declaration: A meatless day is dawning.
According to market research company NPD Group, 12 percent of millennials (ages 23-38) identify as vegan or vegetarian, along with 11 percent of baby boomers, comprising perhaps one of the largest population blocks of herbivores since the Paleolithic era. An increasingly sociopolitically-active generation has dovetailed with greater cultural awareness of the senseless cruelty of the meat industry (not to mention its substantial contributions to climate change). And now, more than 1 in 10 humans of reproductive age have forgone meat.
When two people love each other very much and are of consenting age, their passion for one another will sometimes result in a third human, who will end up inheriting not only their combined genome—but their belief systems. In the case of vegans, that child could be raised through infancy, childhood, and conceivably live their entire life without consuming meat or animal products.
Yes, they walk among us. And while theirs may be the high road, it’s often a bumpy one. The world can, ironically, be a cruel and unwelcoming place for people who have never tasted meat or milk or eggs or cheese.
There isn’t much data on the vegan-since-birth demographic. And while a lifelong vegan can bear a strikingly similar resemblance to a lifelong omnivore, like Impossible Whoppers next to regular Whoppers, their life experiences diverge with any trip to a doctor or restaurant; or invitation to a birthday party.
Forest Barkdoll-Weil, 26, has been raised vegan since he was born, save for a few experimental phases throughout his life. His mother, Zoe Weil, is the co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education–and he more or less inherited her worldview. Growing up, Barkdoll-Weir and his mother never had a formal conversation about why he ate vegan. “Nothing like the sex talk, no,” he laughs. Well, there was this one time. “It’s a story my mom likes to tell. No idea how old I was, but I was quite young,” he says. “After Halloween, I asked my mom, what can I eat? What here is vegan? I didn’t know the extent of it. She was like, ‘Are you sure you want to know?’ I got this big bag of candy, and she basically said 75 percent of the stuff I can’t eat. I started bawling. I think my mom bought the candy from me so I’d feel better.” He laughs. “She felt so bad.”
Around the age of 12, at a sleep away camp with particularly limited food options, Barkdoll-Weil grew tired of eating iceberg lettuce for three meals a day (interspersed with vigorous camp activities) and gave in to cheese pizza. For many vegans-since-birth, the home is a fortified stronghold, and everywhere else is wilderness: the farther out you go, the more desperate you become. And while the times they are a-changin’, unless you live in Berkeley or Brooklyn, or a major metropolis the likelihood of meeting people who aren’t necessarily sympathetic or understanding increases.
In 2010, a 19 year-old lifelong vegetarian posted to Reddit: “I have never tasted meat. AMA” (Ask Me Anything.) The thread attracted over 500 comments, a chunk of which were negative–according to many posters, Reddit can be a hostile community toward non-meat eaters, despite the existence of several subreddits devoted exclusively to vegans. The poster, whose account has since been deactivated, inherited the lifestyle from his parents and upholds it mostly for health reasons, with a dash of vague environmentalist imperative. He explained to me that he generally follows the argument that the number of people who can be fed from the grain it takes to raise a cow is far greater than the number of people who can be fed from the meat of the cow itself.
“How do you know you have never tasted meat?” one poster asked.
“Well I’ve never bitten into something, received a distinct flavor, and realized ‘Ah ha, so this is what meat tastes like.’” In other words, does a vegan know if a cookie was made with avocado instead of butter? Or that the chef used cow’s milk instead of soy milk? Maybe. But not always.
Philosophy professor and ecofeminist scholar Dr. Karen Emmerman, became vegan herself at age 16, and raised her child vegan. And now her son, 13, is grappling with this concept while most of his peers are grappling with algebra. “He gets why we’re vegan,” she explains. “And he has a keen sense of why veganism is important for all the reasons—the animals, the humans exploited in the food system, everybody. What he has pushed back on is that it’s hard to be a vegan and be a kid. Kids don’t want to be different from other kids. Childhood can be rough, right?”
It all comes down to feelings of difference, Emmerman explains. When her son has to make alternative food choices, it presents an opportunity for his classmates to perceive him as different, and he acts as an involuntary mirror for their eating habits, which feel under attack. Her line of defense is to “kill them with kindness” by sending him to school with vegan treats for all. “Just as with adults, they kind of loosen up.”
“Your act of eating is always a politicized act,” she notes. “It’s as true of him in the cafeteria as me at a conference.”
In addition to the stigma that can accompany a meat and dairy-free existence, there are also those who question the nutritional value of a vegan diet. Hence the age-old question: Where do you get your protein? For the record: It is not hard to get protein as a vegetarian or a vegan, which is why the official positions of both the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Pediatrics are that plant-based diets can be healthy for all persons. Consider this fact: all protein comes from plants. We equate protein with meat simply because animals eat plants and accumulate that protein in their bodies. According to a spokesperson from the American Academy of Pediatrics, children require .45 grams of protein for each pound of body weight, which puts the recommended daily intake between 20 and 35 grams. Two slices of multigrain bread, each glazed with a tablespoon of peanut butter and tiled with the soft medallions of a slice banana, put you just above 13 grams. A glass of soy milk adds eight grams and supplies a recommended dosage of amino acids. Congratulations: Your child has exceeded the minimum threshold for protein consumption before they have even left the house for the day.
A documentary produced by James Cameron and Arnold Schwarneggar that came out in 2019 features uber, record-setting, award-winning plant-based athletes debunking the idea that meat is a necessary protein source for optimum performance. And along the way you get the idea that meat is an unnecessary source of protein in general and likely unhealthy. It’s not a controversial idea: Any diet that is vegetable-heavy and rich in nuts, legumes, seeds, and other plants is highly beneficial to the body, which makes it all the more confounding that people who have chosen to live a vegan life since birth are often chastied for simply choosing a healthier, cruelty-free diets. (It is always recommended to speak with a pediatrician or nutritionist, who can tailor advice to you and your child.)
Perhaps, the stronger argument against meat consumption remains the moral one. And before our conversation ends, Emmerman would like to address just that. “Here is what I would say about raising a vegan kid: I don’t want to slam them with the moral argument. [Being vegan] is hard, but we don’t always want to hear it. It’s hard because of the bullying and being different, and it’s hard because I know that I have removed him from the traditions of our culture. And it’s not just the pizza at birthday parties. When we get together for Rosh Hashana, he can’t have his grandmother’s chicken soup. When it’s hard and the disappointment comes, we have to show up and say it is hard. Because it is.”
Trailblazing, as it always has, comes at a price. Moving the needle towards a more just and humane world is never going to be easy. And of course, there will always be resistance. But is it worth it? When you have the power to spare the animals of the world, even a small amount of suffering, is it worth all those hard times?
For Generation V, the answer is unequivocally: Yes.
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