My son’s preschool is celebrating Earth Day pretty enthusiastically this year. They’ve organized a week of events—little things each day, like a waste-free lunch day, where kids’ lunches are to be packed solely in reusable packaging and guerilla gardening, where kids sow wildflower seeds in places in need of beauty. And somehow, rather accidentally, I’ve gotten caught up in this green fervor too.
Last week I stumbled upon Vegucated, a moving, award-winning documentary that follows three meat- and cheese-loving New Yorkers as they adopt a vegan diet for six weeks and learn about what most consumers of animal agriculture never see (hint: it's not good). This was right around the time I read two pieces in the New York Times, one about the horrible conditions in which industrially farmed eggs are produced (“Is an Egg for Breakfast Worth This?”) and another about how unsustainable small-scale, organic raising of animals for consumption is (“The Myth of Sustainable Meat”). As someone who felt like I really paid attention to the kinds of food I buy for my family and where they come from, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much I really didn’t know—and if I’m honest, in some ways, wish I still didn’t.
Since before becoming a parent, I’ve made an effort to eat organic meat, dairy and produce. By no means does everything in our pantry come from stores like Whole Foods, but I try to read and understand ingredients, be mindful of hormones in animal products and pesticides in produce, and so on. That being said, fish and (organic) chicken are a regular part of my family’s diet, with an occasional portion of red meat. Oh, and lots of eggs and loads of dairy products. Although I was a vegetarian for four years in high school and college, veganism (in addition to not eating meat, also avoiding any animal products like milk, eggs, etc.) never appealed to me. Until I watched Vegucated.
I was so moved by the film that I wanted to check in with the filmmaker, Marisa Miller Wolfson (full disclosure: we attended the same college, although didn’t know each other), who is a vegan (but grew up in Indiana, loving pork chops) and full-time food activist. She explained to me that the idea for the documentary was born after watching Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 film about subsisting solely on McDonald’s food for 30 days. Wolfson knew that after filming, Spurlock went on a vegan diet to restore his health and was curious about that part of his story and what Super Size Me might look like in reverse. Ultimately, she set out to capture that journey for three individuals: a veggie-hating college student who lives with her meat-loving family, a bacon-loving bartender, and a single working mom of two who loves kosher hot dogs.
While the film opened my eyes to some gruesome aspects of industrial animal production (I’ll spare you the horrific details here) and its impact on the planet, as well as how little labels like organic and free-range or cage-free might mean, it also showed how the three film subjects’ health improved (pounds lost, lower blood pressure and cholesterol) in just six weeks time and made me wonder whether it might be time to lessen the amount of animal products consumed in my home. While I expected my husband to be skeptical to my sudden interest in veganism, he has been surprisingly supportive and has already dramatically reduced the amount of meat he consumes. I don’t intend to force my kids to go vegan (and I know I need to do some more research about what just a balanced vegetarian diet might be for kids), but I do think we can all do with fewer animal products in our diet.
At Wolfson’s suggestion, we’re holding taste tests of foods like veggie burgers, so we can all find ones we like, and working on incorporating more fresh fruits and veggies into our days (for example, we’ve found my sons will eat more veggies if served to them before the rest of a meal instead of alongside it). And I’m learning a lot in the process, helped along by a daily email newsletter from Wolfson called Vegan at Heart (a more robust 30-day “Vegucated Challenge” is in the works, she says, helping folks to go vegan immediately or gradually during that month). While I don’t know whether I’ll end up as a vegetarian or vegan permanently, I do know that I feel much better about what I’m putting in my own body and those of the rest of my family (and that soy ice cream will likely never truly compare to what I'm used to--but it's much tastier than I had expected!).
Have you ever tried going vegetarian or vegan? Would you ever?