Archive for May, 2012

Growing Food and Breaking Hearts

As a new activist, I am still experimenting with how to most effectively speak up for animals.  I recently learned, secondhand, that my remarks about [the journey of] going vegan were perceived as chastising.  This was not my intent, and clearly, I need to work on refining my message.  If only I’d begun all of this sooner.

A dozen years ago, I hosted a dinner party for a circle of friends and one apologetic vegetarian.  Annoyed that the latter had messed up the evening’s menu, I remember muttering to my then-partner, “I could never date a vegetarian”.  How does one go from staunch omnivore to vegan activist?  It didn’t happen with the snap of fingers.  But it could have.

As I learned more about nutrition, I made small adjustments to my diet over the decade that followed.  No red meat.  Less dairy.  Cage-free eggs.  Organic.  Local.  When I heard reports about the environmental destruction caused by animal agriculture, I may have even patted myself on the back; after all, I wasn’t eating cheeseburgers anymore.

It wasn’t until I attended a passionate speech by activist Colleen Patrick-Goudreau in 2009 that I took a hard look at the torture I was putting on my fork.  She spoke of the rape and slavery of dairy cows, the cruelty of egg production, the purging of our oceans and other horrific truths about eating animals.  With great skill, she told the hard-line truth.  It broke my heart enough to also break down all of my defenses.  In a snap, I went vegan.

The truth about animal agriculture hurts, and most people don’t want to accept it.  We get defensive about our past and present actions. It is less painful to buy into the message from

Douglas and Linus, two male “discards” from the dairy industry, were bottle-fed in the barn and pasture beside the micro-farm.

popular authors like Michael Pollan; it’s OK to kill animals and the planet, as long as you don’t do it too often.  Even better if it’s local. Attached as we are to the prevalent culture and comforts of certain foods, we resist making changes that may seem overwhelming.  We don’t know how to prepare vegan food.  Many people worry about protein.  We imagine the awkwardness that our new veganism may inspire in social situations.

There are so many excuses for not doing the right thing.  For this reason, I believe that it usually takes more than opening someone’s mind.  In my own personal experience, an open mind put me on the path of baby steps for a decade.  In order to make urgent, meaningful and necessary change, a heart must break.  I wish that I had crossed paths with a hard-line, truth-telling activist earlier.

The talented and eloquent Colleen reaches audiences nation-wide through public speaking, podcasts, articles, and most famously through her beautiful cookbooks, such as The Vegan Table and The 30-Day Vegan Challenge.  At Animal Place, my internship in the veganic micro-farm gives me the opportunity to be truthful with volunteers, visitors and people in the community who are curious about what I am doing.  This is my venue to – as best as I can – speak up for animals.

Our model farm is not isolated from the rest of the sanctuary.  One can see and hear the animals while tending to the tomatoes, and it is important to relate the stark differences in our cruelty-free farming practices in contrast to how food is produced in animal-based systems.  Most not-yet-vegan inquiries are polite.  When others respond defensively or not at all, uneasiness hangs heavy in the air.  Now what?  Well, at least they will leave with that dis-ease in their minds, and perhaps that feeling will sink down into their heart someday.  Perhaps this is better, even, than polite.

I’ve yet to break any hearts, but I’ll keep on trying.

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Of Carrots and Compassion

Whole foods. Urban gardening. DIY. Ethical eating. Self-sufficiency. As these worthy ideals gain ground in the mainstream, interest in the micro-farm at Animal Place grows among supporters and green thumb wannabes alike. It is the visitor who comes to play in the soil as a volunteer, or to buy our farm fresh produce (someday), that gives us a new channel for the vegan message: they come for the carrots, we tell them about how they were grown with compassion.

Americorps volunteers plant broccoli in the micro-farm

Last week, we gratefully hosted a community service project for a crew of six young women and men from Americorps. With a work-ethic honed from months of physical work in the outdoors, they buzzed around the field with hoes, rakes and wheelbarrows. After all the seedlings were transplanted and watered in, we toured the sanctuary together. They met the Turlock hens. They tickled Ivan. Fingers sunk into Aiden’s woolly coat for a scratch. Douglas got friendly and licked one of the volunteers. They asked thoughtful questions. We discussed the trifecta of why people go vegan; for their health, for the environment, and out of compassion for all beings.

But what about poor people?  In this group of enlistees who have committed 10 months of their lives to making positive change, one young woman from Seattle pondered aloud about the inaccessibility of veganism for disadvantaged populations.  Veganism, she said, is a privilege for the middle class and above.  It is easy to see how this perception could take hold in the USA, where the high quality foods at hip vegan restaurants command a decent penny.  Rice, beans, and veggies may be inexpensive to cook, but the processed meat and dairy alternatives certainly cost more at the check-out than the subsidized cow.

In the country where she lives and serves, she may have a point.

In a study by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) that compared vegetarianism by nation, results indicated that “in countries where GDP is relatively low, people are vegetarians due to necessity”.  The hungry in Africa, for example, may choose plant-based foods because it is a less costly diet.  In most parts of the world, vegetarianism is the diet of choice for people with limited means.   As those people become more affluent, they then choose to add meat to their diet.  This diet brings negative health issues, wastes natural resources, and, in turn, contributes to the poverty of the people left behind.  It is a terrible cycle.  In the United States, our poor suffer more from obesity and diabetes, eating at KFC or McDonald’s because there is little choice in the “food desert” where they live.

Food choices can be complex – income, education, culture, accessibility, willingness to change –  and one only needs to visit the Food Empowerment Project website to learn about the myriad of injustices that punish humans, society, animals and nature every minute of every day.     We could go on to further study and debate the why’s of vegetarianism here and there, for the poor and the rich, and we would learn much in doing so.  Our concern for the poor may make it difficult to accept that our meat consumption in rich countries is causing more deprivation for the hungry, as we devastate their land to grow grain; we pollute their water, deforest their trees and deplete their soils to feed not them, but meat animals.  Meanwhile, the poor in the US live in the aforementioned food deserts, or perhaps suffer from asthma caused by a neighboring factory farm.

Are you reading this as a middle- or upper-class person, wanting to make positive change?  With compassion for the poor?  With compassion for animals?   If any of these apply to you, you don’t have the privilege of veganism.  You have the duty of veganism and for activism, and for making veganism more accessible to those in need.

Please support the Food Empowerment Project in their fight for food justice for all.

Please support the Animal Place micro-farm, in our quest to grow food ethically, inspire compassion and educate eaters and fellow farmers.

Please support the world’s poor…go vegan!

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