Like most people in the United States, I grew up eating meat, milk and eggs, and believing that it was healthy to do so. I didn’t make a conscious choice to eat animal foods – I just adopted the habit from my parents and from everyone else around me without thinking very much about it. Had I been exposed to the benefits of plant-based eating earlier, I certainly would have consumed far fewer animal products.
I don’t begrudge my parents for raising and feeding me the way they did. They believed these foods were good for my siblings and me. They believed, as many parents still do, that meat, milk, and eggs are a necessary part of the human diet. In her excellent book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, Melanie Joy describes a social construction she calls “carnism,” whereby the consumption of animal flesh and the violence of animal exploitation and slaughter are normalized and institutionalized. These habits and beliefs begin to take hold when we are children.
Thankfully, there are resources and a number of youth programs now available to teach children critical thinking skills and the benefits of eating plants instead of animals. I recently had the opportunity to visit Terra Summer, a camp for kids between the ages of 11 and 14 where food is used to teach math, history, geography, and other topics. The vegetarian camp introduces young people to the benefits of plant-based eating and also teaches cooking and food preparation skills. The day I visited, the students created five different kinds of veggie burgers. All were delicious!
It was wonderful to see this generation learning about the importance of conscientious eating and the profound impact of our food choices. Our individual and collective wellbeing, as well as the future of other animals and our planet, are directly influenced by what we eat and how it is produced.