While I was knee-deep in meetings on Tuesday, Scott took T. to see Charlotte's Web at the free family summer film festival (we've been huge fans of these free films--let me tell you). I love E.B. White's book, and I like the film, too. In fact, I still remember reading Charlotte's Web as a child and thinking, for the first time, very hard about this whole meat-eating business. It was, I think, the first book that made me question not just what I ate, but where it came from. And although I tried a vegetarian diet many time, it wasn't until years later, when I was in my twenties, that I completely gave up eating meat.
Not long ago a preschool playground acquaintance and I were discussing vegetarianism, and she was probing about our choice to raise the kids as vegetarians. When I mentioned to her that I thought it was pretty intuitive for kids to want to be vegetarian, she wrinkled her face up and shook her head--this is, after all, the land of pulled pork and the place where Chick-fil-A reigns supreme. But I still stand by my point. Kids are programmed to view the animal kingdom empathetically; we read our kids story after story where the main characters are talking pigs, or chickens, or cows, or rabbits, or birds, or horses--you name it, a children's book has probably been written from the point-of-view of every single member of the animal kingdom (and the insect world, and even invertebrates). As a child I read so many children's books featuring charming and sensitive little mice characters that I would go around and set off the mouse traps my dad used to set in the basement. How does a small child reconcile the world of talking animals with with the pork chop on their plate at dinner?
My conversation with this parent made me remember a preschool party I went to a couple years ago. One of the parents had brought in chicken nuggets--the "fun shaped" kind you can buy in colorful boxes from the freezer section of the store. As she was doling these out to the kids she called them by their shapes ("Oh! Here's a star for you! Look! Here's a little circle!"), creating, I think, at a young age, a harmful and immediate disconnect between what children eat, and where it comes from.
I would never criticize parents for raising their children as meat-eaters, but I do think it's important to teach our kids from a young age to understand where their food comes from--this will only help our kids make smart choices later in life. Our culture loves packaging; we love putting a spin on things, and adding snazzy slogans to ads in an attempt to sell food, and to create--I think--a further distance between what we eat, and where it comes from.
When I was a child and I visited my grandparents in Greece, I loved to go with my grandmother when she would do her daily shopping. There were no mega grocery stores then (there are in her neighborhood now)--you went to the green grocer for the vegetables, to the fruit stand for the fruit, to the baker for the warm, yeasty bread, and to the butcher for the meat. And while I loved going to all the other shops, I didn't much like the butcher shop. In there, you came face-to-face with what you were buying and eating--hunks of beef hung on hooks, plucked chickens dangled near the counter. The shop smelled of...meat--the raw, fresh, smell of blood. But I knew exactly where my roast beef came from; I knew that the chicken my grandmother cooked for dinner, or stirred into an avgolemono soup came from that same naked chicken I'd seen hanging from the hook by the butcher's counter.
I try not to preach vegetarianism to everyone, but I do feel passionate about "food education" and honesty--let them learn where their burger comes from, show them that you read labels, talk to them at the grocery store about how the fruit grows, or where vegetables come from; let them see the animal that gave the meat, the cow that produced the milk, the chicken that laid the egg, the stalk that grew the corn,. Try and avoid buying foods packaged "for kids" and stick to the authentic, the original, the natural--I think our kids will thank us for this, I really do.