“Propaganda, brainwashing and child abuse!” Who knew that children's books could provoke such charges? My first book, That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals, was internationally well-received, but also caused some controversy—garnering attacks in online parenting forums, animal agriculture trade magazines, and even from Farm Bureau CEOs.
My latest picture book Vegan Is Love: Having Heart and Taking Action is on the same track...and I do admit, I revel in the public discussion. I have always been interested in the underbelly of things, and each case of opposition to my books provides me the opportunity to study the invisible forces that shape public thinking about children, food, health, and animals. Where do these concerns come from? Why the outcry over a book about veganism and not the USDA’s food pyramid?
With several years worth of case analyses under my belt, I’ve found that at the root of opposition to teaching kids about veganism and animal rights is, most simply, fear and unawareness.
We tend to shelter children from the “adult” world because we fear shattering a fragility we imagine they inherently possess. We follow this concept of childhood because we’ve inherited it from the Victorian age—not because it constitutes a universal outlook about children. Throughout history and the world, different cultures consider their children to have capabilities beyond what we acknowledge here in the West. In some cultures kids are contributing members of the community by the time they’re age four—watching siblings, pounding grain, helping collect firewood. Kids are more competent and sturdy than we think. Surprised parents have repeatedly told me that their child reacted with curiosity—not fear—when they learned about factory farming in my books. During readings, I’ve never once seen a child overwhelmed—only the adults.
Kids learn when we teach them. But today, there is a fine line between education and advertising. With constant media and technological stimulation, and corporate infiltration into nearly every aspect of life, kids are being “educated” by biased messaging hundreds of times a day—most successfully by whomever has the most money to spend. Seventy-five percent of government subsidies, for example, go to the meat and dairy industries while less than half a percent goes to fruits and vegetables. The Milk Mustache campaign, driven by the National Milk Processor Board (administered by the USDA) spent $190 million in 1998.
Colluding industry-led campaigns like these are not just for fun. They are highly effective, causing massive increases in demand— in this case, billions of pounds of fluid milk. It is these profit-seeking systems that should draw outcry about propaganda and brainwashing, not children’s books about choices alternative to the status quo.
Today’s generation will need sharpened critical-thinking skills to navigate through this increasingly clandestine corporate world. This is one of the main reasons why I wrote Vegan Is Love and exactly why I believe kids need guidance at an early age to help them make educated choices as they mature. This book is about the personal agency of people—big and small—in creating a more actively compassionate, sustainable world. It is about what anyone can do, on any day, to help instead of harm. I believe that when kids understand the options we have with food, clothing, entertainment, and the dollars we spend, they choose wisely. But they can’t make choices if they don’t know there have any.
Today, unless you grow up to work behind the scenes or you actively seek out the truth in your youth, it is likely you’ll grow into adulthood without learning the degree of collusion, for example, between government and big pharma, agriculture, and food corporations in getting us to abide by their guidelines and consume their products. When the level of their organization and calculation becomes clear, the reality is dizzying.
The revolving door between the FDA, the USDA, the Department of Health, Monsanto, large processed food corporations, and pharmaceuticals ensures the alignment of public services and education with industry interests. From elementary grades to graduate programs, everything from school events to lectures, vending machines, textbooks, and curriculums are known to be organized for potential gain by colluding industries.
Conventional doctors receive as little as six hours of nutritional training. Nutritional degree programs accredited by the American Dietetic Association regularly receive sponsorship from corporate giants like Monsanto, the National Dairy Council, Aramark, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo. Under these circumstances, neither moral nor ethical imperatives of veganism, nor the environmental destruction and toxicity caused by eating meat and dairy may enter into mainstream nutritional knowledge. Neither will the cognitive and emotional lives of animals be much considered in the food pyramid. Under these circumstances, it becomes easy not to care.
It is clear we can’t rely on our political leaders, CEOs, or major companies to fix anything—not the environment, our food, the economy, or our health. So it is up to us, individual citizens to create the change we wish to see. To be effective, we have to invite kids to the discussion.
We can’t afford to wait for the next generation to grow up before teaching them to live consciously. With children, sugarcoating or avoiding the real consequences of our choices only hinders what they are actually capable of. And hindering their capabilities delays the potential we have to green our society, improve our health, and do best for all living things.
It is crucial for the next generation to be exposed to alternative thinking and educational experiences that will allow them to compete with mainstream opinions about health, animals, and the environment as they grow into adulthood. By borrowing practices from the tenets of veganism, we can all learn how to live actively and consciously in an authentic, efficient, and far-reaching manner. I wrote Vegan Is Love for everyone who wants to learn how.
I believe in the capabilities of children. They need but little guidance in learning to love deeply, think critically, and act responsibly. I believe nothing should get in the way of this kind of education.
Ruby Roth is an American teacher and author of the That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals and the recently published Vegan Is Love: Having Heart and Taking Action.