A decade after producing award-winning vegan documentary Vegucated, Marisa Miller Wolfson discusses carnism in society, making veganism mainstream, and the perks of vegan parenting.
“Parenting is just one big exercise in letting go,” says Marisa Miller Wolfson, producer of award-winning documentary Vegucated. But, as she points out in our stop-start conversation while she answers her daughter’s plea to play games: “Well, at least you’ll get to see vegan parenting in action, right?”
Yet, with almost 20 years of activism, a recently-launched cookbook, and several awards up her sleeve, Wolfson is more than just a mother to two plant-based children.
Wolfson recounts the moment she understood she could no longer consume animals. It was 2002 and someone she thought was a “crazy animal lady” invited her to a viewing of We Are All Noah, a documentary featuring graphic depictions of the animal agriculture industry. She left shocked, deciding then and there: “This can happen, but not because of me.”
Two months later, she was on a plane somewhere with piles of vegan literature to keep her entertained. The moment she landed, Wolfson was vegan.
From vegan trends to mainstream veganism
Vegucated came to screens in 2011, but was conceived in the middle of a viewing of Super Size Me. “I thought: ‘Now I know what not to eat, but wouldn’t it be fascinating to know what we should eat, and what happens along the way?’” she explains.
“If a picture is worth a thousand words, a film is worth a million,” Wolfson says. The activist has always gravitated towards film because it’s what impacted her decision to transition the most, opening her eyes and her heart to the animal industry.
To this day, the producer still gets messages from people celebrating their ‘veganniversaries’. While she believes her documentary was full to the brim with mistakes, she says the experiment narrated throughout was a success — and all three subjects had a journey “where they ended up in a different place at the end”. Brian Flegel, a huge bacon-lover who thought vegans were “from outer space”, is now the father and husband of a “hardcore vegan family”.
The trick, she discloses, is to strike a balance between something watchable and accessible, and something powerful. Using humour, and inserting elements of self-interest — like the personal health benefits of a vegan diet — will make a documentary more appealing to the masses.
“But people shouldn’t feel judged,” she emphasises. All stages of the lifecycle need to feel like they can execute veganism. “If you scream: ‘You’re a bad person!’, people will turn off.”
Wolfson explains that’s why using human case studies is optimal. Stories like farmers who transform their chicken farms into split pea farms is a valid example. Instead of stating: “You’re bad,” documentaries should say: “Hey, come along on this journey with me and let’s see where we all end up at the end.”
Parenting: the next vegan frontier
Almost 10 years after the release of Vegucated, Wolfson has been looking for a new way to make veganism mainstream. She believes the next vegan frontier is parenting.
Until people believe it is socially, physically and psychologically safe and healthy to raise their children on a plant-based diet, the activist says veganism will not be a norm.
As a child, Wolfson was a huge foodie — never leaving anything to waste. But she remembers questioning the veal schnitzel that her family often dined on, and her mother responding with: “It’s a baby male cow, they get killed anyway so we might as well eat them.” She says children are very much at the mercy of their families, and while she was distraught by the idea of consuming a baby cow, she accepted it and ate it anyway.
“I didn’t know my mother was expressing a carnist view, and if that conversation had happened today, the answer probably would have been very different,” she says. Wolfson’s children have been vegan “since conception”, but their mother knows that, with age, it is likely they will push boundaries. She hopes that she has given them “a moral compass”, allowing them to “navigate challenges with the knowledge of what is kind and what isn’t kind in their hearts”.
Raising children vegan has provided them with basic self-esteem, essential in standing firm in their beliefs. But being swayed is not the only worry. With a rise in non-vegan bullying amongst families in the UK, I ask whether this is the case for her kids.
Currently attending a private school in New York, a place she considers very open-minded, Wolfson’s children have not yet encountered any trouble. She adds that the school cafeteria caters for vegans everyday. But this may be due to the increasing amount of special diets that children are in need of today. “So many kids have allergies, they’re like fragile flowers these days,” she laughs.
At home, the activist gives me her top three tips to being a successful vegan parent:
- Being a good example: Children usually copy more than they listen, so setting an example of a healthy vegan lifestyle is essential in raising healthy vegan children.
- Checking sources: Many parents worry they aren’t feeding their children enough nutrients. So getting regular blood tests is a simple but effective way of reassuring yourself.
- Open conversation: Wolfson often discusses climate change and the challenges humankind will face with her kids. She highlights the importance of not scaring your children, but instead talking in an empowering and informative way. “If they consider themselves solutionaries, they own their vegan identity in a revolutionary way. It makes them feel like superheroes, and what kid wouldn’t want that?”
As parents, Wolfson says passing on beliefs to our children is just a part of the job description. Things like how we treat the Earth, not pulling the cat’s tail, and saying “please” and “thank you” are society’s beliefs. So can’t raising children vegan be the same thing?
The mother adds that it doesn’t have to be boring either. Her go-to snack, a recipe from her new book, The Vegucated Family Table, is pitted dates stuffed with peanut butter, dark chocolate, and hemp seed sprinkles. She adds that it helps that more and more children’s TV shows like Arthur are narrating plant-based characters, and bedtime stories are also taking on vegan narratives, including Vivi the Super Vegan, Esther the Wonder Pig, and campaign author Ruby Roth’s V is for Vegan.
A carnist society
While Wolfson stands by veganism for its animal, environmental and health implications, she believes ethical vegans are more likely to stick with the lifestyle. This is because she says we are currently living in a ‘carnist society’, where non-veganism is normal: “As we open our circles of compassion, veganism will become more of the norm.” So, using compassion as motivation may ultimately achieve better results.
Unfortunately, compassionate vegans have been targeted a lot recently. Wolfson believes this is because upon encountering empathetic people, individuals hold a mirror up to themselves, evaluating their own choices, and if they see the person before them actually living out their same values, they become defensive. “And it’s easier to criticise and invalidate the other person,” she notes.
But the activist is hopeful that the future is bright. “Someday, future generations will look back and think our current ‘carnist’ way of looking at things is out-dated and inhumane.”
Covid-19 has luckily not swayed Wolfson’s career too much. Her cookbook, which launched on August 25, is a resource she hopes will give parents the courage to raise their children plant-based in an informative and correct manner. “Anyone who has doubts will realise that vegan diets can power kids in the most healthy, sustainable and compassionate way.”
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Unfortunately, the pandemic has proved filming from afar is challenging even to experienced producers. Despite this, the Vegucated producer says it would be a shame to let all the “pumped up youth out to make the world better” go to waste. So one day, she hopes to film a documentary, with more money and more experience, on the rising wave of young vegans.
Until then, Wolfson will be working on getting a fictional vegan children’s book up her sleeve. “It’s always been on my bucket list.”