I get to reflect on my reasons for going vegan every year on my birthday. You see, I happen to have been born on what would later become World Vegan Day. It seems fitting that World Vegan Day would start in 1994, right around the time I became vegetarian. But I grappled with my feelings on animals as food long before that.
I don’t remember how old I was, I think maybe 5 or 6, but I must have been very young, when it sunk in that my dinner was a live animal at some point. I remember knowing that meat came from animals; I think I even knew that animals had to die to become meat. I remember my sister was telling me that I was eating animal muscle, and that was really gross to me. Before that, I must have had some crazy idea that there was this “meat” section of an animal that was something else entirely. When I was younger, I also thought that all the animals were well cared for on the farm, lived to be a ripe old age and then died, at which point people ate them because you could have some food and burying a cow sure seems like it would be a lot of work. When I had realized that none of this was actually true, that I was in fact eating animal muscle, I decided then and there that I would be a vegetarian. I took matters into my own hands. For the next couple of days, I ate nothing but cheese singles and an orange drink. After I had a barfing fit, my mom told me that vegetarianism wasn’t working for me, and I abruptly ended my brief vegetarian stint. I was sad, but I obliged.
I had a few more touch and go stints with vegetarianism. None of them ever lasted. When I became vegetarian for real in middle school, it was for a very stupid reason. A girl I had a falling out with had just given a speech in class about why she was vegetarian. The 14-year-old diva in me said, “I can be a better vegetarian than her.” Since I had something to prove this time, I had to really commit. I also had the profound realization that it is called “vegetarian” for a reason, that I should probably learn to like vegetables. At that point, I was a bit older and could actually cook for myself. I started eating more salads and put fresh veggies on pizzas and tacos where they were largely absent before. No barfing this time.
In high school, I turned a corner and became vegan. I was working in the local public library, and I had a close friend who ran with the vegan straight edge crowd. He told me to check out a book called Old MacDonald’s Factory Farm. He said that if I was being vegetarian for ethical reasons that I really needed to read it and consider veganism. When I came across the book at work, I had to give it a look-through. I was horrified by what I saw in the book, particularly the pictures. But I was also perplexed; I lived in Wisconsin for crying out loud! How was it that our state could be filled with small family farms and this was still going on? I came to the realization that mass-produced fast foods and processed foods containing dairy and eggs weren’t supplied by the farmhouses lining the interstate; those products came from the factory farms that I saw in the book. So, I gave them the ax.
Since I couldn’t know if the eggs and dairy that my parents bought were coming from a factory farm or not, I decided to cut them out altogether too. While I sorted through ingredient lists to see if anything was animal-derived, I also began to notice how many chemicals were in processed food and paid closer attention to nutrition labels. I began to get a clearer picture of what was really in food I was buying, and I began to opt for freshly prepared food whenever I could. I wanted to know what I was putting in my body. This isn’t to say that I never eat junk food, but increasing my awareness of what was in my food definitely had an impact on my consumption. Despite being more particular about my food sources, becoming vegan actually expanded my food horizons; I was eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains than ever, and I was experimenting with new styles of cuisine I would otherwise never had known about.
I have now been vegan for more than half my life. A lot has changed since I began back in the nineties. Once limited to a single brand of watered-down soymilk and a mass-produced veggie burger, I now see an amazing array of nondairy milk and meat alternatives from a broad range of producers, all available in the same grocery store. An increasing number of restaurants are offering tasty vegan options beyond the salad bar. Responding to market demand, food producers are becoming more sensitive to food allergens and dietary preferences and are labeling their products accordingly. That’s a big help for someone who chooses an “alternative” diet.
Nevertheless, some barriers, be they real or perceived, can keep people from embracing veganism. To minimize the obstacles, it is critical that those who are veg-inclined continue to share our experiences as well as work towards making healthy food accessible for all. In that way, individuals can proactively make food choices. I write this post just a week after the release of the Minnesota Food Charter, a prescribed road map for policymakers and community members involved in food work in the state. The food charter takes many factors into consideration: who has access to food, how what we eat impacts our health, who profits, how are workers treated, how are animals treated, how far food travels, and how sustainable the system is. My experience with veganism has motivated me to think more deeply about these issues and discuss them long before the release of this document. I still have a lot of unanswered questions, but one thing I do know is that when we talk about our personal experiences with food, we begin to think more deeply about the food system and how it works. Not everyone agrees that veganism is the best practice for animal welfare, the environment, or health, but hopefully in talking about why we eat what we eat, we can begin to identify common values that will help to build a more ethical and equitable food system.