By Amber Colvard, HoneyColony Original
You’ve heard about the cruelties of animal agriculture and the health benefits of a vegan diet. Perhaps you have interacted with a few real-life vegans, but none whose lifestyle you could imagine taking on. You care about the well-being of the planet and might have even tried to “go vegetarian,” with no long-term success. If you are like so many Americans, torn between the social norms of everyday living and the causes you would love to advocate, it may be time for some post-secondary “vegucation.”
Enter Vegucated, a documentary that dives into the challenges of converting to a vegan diet and lifestyle. This 2011 film “follows three meat-and-cheese-loving New Yorkers who agree to adopt a vegan diet for six weeks.” Vegan director Marisa Miller Wolfson’s bacon-loving, Midwestern farm roots reveal a person viewers can relate to, not anything like the stereotypical harsh, argumentative super-vegan-machine. Wolfson achieves a non-judgmental “safe place” for viewers.
The transformation begins with three chosen but willing subjects: college student Tesla, aspiring actor Brian, and single mom and comedian Ellen. Marisa introduces them to vegan food and recipes, cruelty-free accessories such as faux leather shoes, and brings them to a farm, where the three hear rescue stories and bond with the animals. The film then shows footage from farms and factories where animals clearly been abused and mistreated. The excruciating images first stir up disbelief, then sadness, and finally anger. The straight-to-the-point reality of the footage sets the record straight about any preconceived notions you may have about the meat industry.
After seeing the factory footage, Tesla, Brian, and Ellen begin to question the role meat-eaters play in supporting and perpetuating ignorance and animal cruelty in the United States. Not to mention the meat industry’s impact on our environment.
I specifically enjoyed the way this film was laid out and developed. The format of Vegucated embraces the viewers and invites them to share the journey on a personal, conversational level: as a person-to-person interaction and not a lecture on why the vegan is perfect and the meat-eater is shamefully wrong. Nor does this documentary prompt an attack against the companies that make mass farming and animal cruelty a norm in the United States. Instead, Wolfson develops a film that carefully and honestly illustrates the violent acts being committed yet leaves the advocacy up to the viewer.
Other similar films that do impose viewpoints and attacks, such as Food, Inc., failed to move me the same way that Vegucated did. This less didactic documentary left me feeling that I should do something of my own initiative. It reminded me that I do have the potential to make a difference if I just commit to my gut feelings on health and my moral obligations against such unnecessary cruelty.
Here, HoneyColony catches up with Marisa to talk veganism, filmmaking, and life in general.
HC: Where did the inspiration to create a full-fledged film come from?
MMW: I was sitting in Super Size Me, and I saw that Morgan Spurlock detoxed from his burger binge on a vegan diet. I thought—that’s the movie I want to see: how a typical American fares on a vegan diet health-wise and psychologically as well. I had been vegan for a few years by that point, and I was aware of some common experiences people go through when they go vegan, some of which are quite dramatic. I wanted to capture that.
I spoke to my colleague and friend, Mary Max, and we decided, ignorantly, to do it. We had no idea how long and expensive a documentary film is to make. Thank goodness we didn’t know. Ignorance is bliss!
HC: What types of goals did you want to achieve within the film?
MMW: I wanted viewers to walk away understanding the hows and whys of veganism from a health, environmental, and ethical perspective in a way that makes veganism seem less extreme and more doable than many people generally believe. But I didn’t want to gloss over the challenges either. I wanted to show what would-be vegans are up against and to create more understanding at the dinner table.
HC: What prompted you to switch to a vegan lifestyle? Did you cut out all animal products at once or was it a more gradual transition?
MMW: I was talked into watching an old documentary by animal rights philosopher Tom Regan called We Are All Noah that showed what happens to animals on farms, in labs, and in shelters. I was floored. As someone who loved companion animals and wildlife, I realized that there was no difference between a dog or cat and a pig or cow in terms of their ability to suffer and their right to live. It’s just how we feel about them that differs.
I left that film screening a vegetarian. Then I read about what happens to egg laying hens and dairy cows and their offspring, and I realized that I had to go vegan.
HC: Are you pro-pet ownership? What do you think of vegan diets for pets?
MMW: It’s funny. Once you go down this rabbit hole, your mind opens up to how we think of and use animals across the board. So now I’ve started saying “animal guardianship” instead of “pet ownership” because that’s more reflective of the kind of relationship I’d like to have with animals, not as property to be owned but as individuals to be cared for. But yeah, I think living with animals enriches our lives so much.
In terms of their diets, my experience has been that dogs can really thrive on a vegan diet, and there are really great vegan dog food brands out there like V-Dog. But cats are much trickier. I almost killed my cat putting him on a vegan diet, and many other animal lovers have done the same. Cats are true carnivores, and while a very small number of people have had luck with it after doing lots of homework on how to do it right, many others have almost killed their cats in the process.
So I encourage people to focus on vegucating human friends and family, not on veganizing their cats.
HC: What does a typical day in food look like for you? What are some meals you love?
MMW: Today, I had a smoothie for breakfast with banana, spinach, flax seeds, almond milk, and almond butter. I love starting the day that way. For lunch I’ll often have a hummus wrap with kale or lettuce, tomato, pepper, and avocado. For dinner maybe I’ll make a vegan pesto and put it on whole wheat or quinoa/amaranth pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, vegan Parmesan cheese (crushed toasted walnuts mixed with nutritional yeast), and some steamed greens.
HC: In your documentary, you make it apparent that one person’s individual choice to go vegan can change the world. Can you estimate what kind of change it would take to defeat the corporation-run food industry?
MMW: I’m not a mathematician, so I can’t begin to figure that out, but I do know that in the past 10 years the percentage of vegetarians in the United States has grown—doubled, in fact, by some estimates, to about 5 or 6 percent. That doesn’t sound like much, but the tipping point for social change isn’t 51 percent, as so many people think. It’s actually closer to 10 percent, according to a 2011 study led by scientists from the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
This tipping point marks the time when a minority belief becomes the majority opinion. Given the current growth rate, we could estimate that 10 percent of Americans will become vegetarian within the next decade.
HC: What are your favorite organizations for change in the food industry? What are your favorite pro-vegan organizations?
MMW: Farm Sanctuary was the first organization I got involved with, and they do such great work educating people about the sentience of farmed animals through the rescued animal ambassadors themselves.
Mercy for Animals’ undercover investigations have shed so much light on the cruelty that happens behind closed doors every day on farms. Compassion Over Killing has some great legal and publicity campaigns to spread the veg message too.
Finally, the Humane Society of the United States has educated millions on farmed animal cruelty through their successful ballot initiatives to ban confinement systems for veal calves, breeding sows, and egg-laying hens in several states.
HC: Do you have any favorite books (cookbooks, personal memoirs, nonfiction eye-openers) to recommend for new vegans or those thinking about a lifestyle change?
MMW: There are a few good basic how-to primers, such as The Complete Idiots Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition by Julieanna Hever. I also love Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s cookbooks. Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s Eat to Live and T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study are must-reads.
HC: How would you suggest a person—whether going vegan or just becoming more aware—can get involved in their community spreading the word on healthy living and animal cruelty?
MMW: Well, they can start by hosting a community screening of our movie. It’s a great way to not only vegucate but also show off local vegan foods and connect with local organizations. We have great screening tips on our website.
HC: Are there any websites besides The Vegucated Challenge that you would suggest to help newly dedicated vegans?
MMW: There’s also our Vegucated Schoolhouse Online Community, where people around the world can connect, share ideas, and get and give support. Vegweb.com is a huge repository for user-rated and reviewed vegan recipes, complete with pictures. Happycow.net is a fantastic resource for finding veg restaurants and veg-friendly stores anywhere in the world.
HC: In the film you take the characters food shopping and point out to a lot of processed foods that they end up buying. Most likely many are genetically modified. To me that is just as unhealthy as eating conventional meat.
MMW: Is there a question here? Lol! We showcased these products as transitional foods for people who aren’t ready to give up their favorite animal products yet. Most vegans rely on them more initially and then move on to healthier, more whole plant foods once they get their feet under them.
HC: What have you learned since making the film?
MMW: I’ve learned how to make a film! That’s the biggest thing. But I’m always learning and growing with every new book or film that I watch.
HC: Do you think that grass-fed, grass-finished beef is just as bad as conventional?
MMW: It might be slightly less cruel, I imagine, and slightly less unhealthy, but as you know from watching the film, those labels don’t mean as much as people would like to think. They are certainly meaningless when it comes to how the animals are killed.
HC: You have a new baby. Will you raise him vegan? Or will you give him a chance to decide on his own?
MMW: I’ll raise him vegan. We all try to make healthy decisions about food for our kids to give them a healthy start and to get into good food. Good parents don’t just let kids eat what they want or they’d be eating junk all day. I’ll be the same way with my son’s food. But veganism is about more than what you eat. For most of us it’s a lifestyle and a worldview based on sustainability and compassion for all beings, so we’ll do our best to teach him those core values.
Photo by Ahmed Al-Saleh/Flickr.