How We THRIVED as Vegans – Thanks to Vegetarian Summerfest
by Alex Jones | January 3, 2018
My vegan journey began in 1991, before I had ever met a single other vegan. At the time, I was a microbiologist working for a global pharmaceutical company, and as part of my job I toured animal labs and CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations.) That’s what turned me vegan, and I knew I needed to be a “closeted” vegan (pretending to be a health nut) in that job, in order to remain securely employed. After I married my non-vegan husband (who agreed we would raise any future children as vegans, even though he wasn’t yet vegan himself) I left that job and we started our family.
Times have changed..for better and for worse
When I first came out as a vegan and an activist, few even knew how to pronounce ‘vegan’ let alone what it meant. I was an oddity and perhaps an inconvenience socially, but I never felt disparaged and wasn’t called, “judgmental,” for speaking up on behalf of animals. I was invited onto morning TV shows, interviewed by newspapers, hired by hospitals and grocery stores to teach vegan cooking and felt completely free to share my vegan perspective. The opportunities to do so kept coming. But things are very different now. Today vegans are confronted not just with animal exploitation, but also a toxic anti-vegan framing seeking to shame us into silence. We are encouraged to be, ‘Polite’ vegans and not say anything that might make an omnivore uncomfortable. Some in our movement have even suggested vegans consume small amounts of dairy in public as a way to make die-hard omnivores more receptive to our efforts. No wonder vegans navigating today’s social milieu can feel conflicted and confused.
The impact of the pushback
Few vegans recognize how this larger, mostly invisible paradigm may be impacting them. While there has been much progress in terms of more vegan options, we now have pretty significant pushback too. The pushback is so pervasive, we often don’t see it for what it is. We are like fish, unaware that our existence takes place in a medium of water. Could this be why some abandon veganism saying, “It didn’t work for them”? Some outspoken bloggers claim their health suffered as vegans. But many long-term vegans tell stories of not doing well too – but persevered due to their commitment to justice and eventually figured out that they needed to tweak their vegan diet (like eliminating gluten) and then went on to thrive. This suggests that with support, and more importantly — motivation beyond just one’s self-serving concerns, vegans need not fail.
Our lifelong vegan kids are adults now
Although our children are grown, we had challenges along the way. Today, all four of us are grateful we remained vegan. Veganism has clearly benefited our family in many different ways, providing not only an ethical framework for behaving morally, being engaged citizens and supporters of social justice for all, but also laying a foundation for critical thinking. Veganism enabled our children to appreciate how large corporations, industries and social norms may influence people to behave in ways that are counter to creating a kind, healthy, and just world. However, the fact that we didn’t actually know anyone who had survived a vegan childhood, at the outset of our family’s journey, made us frequently concerned about whether what we were doing was safe.
Veganism is safe
When our first-born was two-years old, her elbow became dislocated from us swinging her. (We didn’t yet know that you should never swing children by their arms because toddlers are highly prone to elbow dislocations.) On our way to the doctor with our screaming child, my anxious brain told me we probably broke her arm, which was weak because we didn’t consume cow’s milk. Now that both our daughters are adults and neither has ever broken a bone, we laugh about that. Even better, until age 11, our first born was a competitive gymnast doing back handsprings on the balance beam! You’d think that after many such similar experiences, we might be less prone to question veganism, but unfortunately when family anxiety is high, I can still always count on the fact that as a vegan parent, eschewing cultural norms, questioning if our veganism is safe, continues to be the first place my brain goes. (My recent blog post about fears of a vitamin A deficiency tells another similar story.)
How we survived
How did we survive? I credit much of our success to a special place that we traveled to every single summer as part of our journey to raise thoughtful, critical-thinking, compassionate children, appreciative of our family’s vegan values. Our annual pilgrimage to, “Vegan Mecca,” the North American Vegetarian Society’s annual Summerfest Conference has been vital. We attended our first Summerfest when our older daughter was just a one-year-old. Following that experience, my husband thrilled me by choosing to be fully vegan, and not just when he was setting an example in front of our child. Year after year, we returned to relish five days of vegan nirvana with hundreds of amazing people, many of whom also return year after year. In spite of the cacophony of voices in our culture attempting to discredit the environmental and health benefits of veganism, Summerfest has kept us educated on the real facts. Meanwhile in the larger culture, the naysayer’s, violent, polluting, rhetoric, which supports the economic interests of powerful corporations, gets coverage in the media out of proportion to its credibility. (Similar to how climate change denier’s perspective gets amplified too.) The biased misinformation fuels the “pushback” vegans are more likely to encounter today. As a result, merely hearing someone say, “I am vegan,” can trigger intense reactions from non-vegans struggling with their own cognitive dissonance.
Much has changed since 1991. As I have explained, although logistical problems are less — the psychological challenges have grown. But thanks to Summerfest, for five days each year, our whole family has been surrounded by an intellectually rich and morally inspiring group of people. We dine together, dance in the evenings, hang out in hallways, play games, laugh late into the night in our dorm rooms. Small children pass out on parent’s laps, while older children force themselves to stay awake in order not to miss anything being discussed by the teens and adults who are just, “hanging out.” We’ve made improv music in the woods. We’ve been entertained by famous vegans sharing their less known, but thoroughly captivating talents. On Summerfest’s main stage, Harold Brown (previously a farmer and featured in the compelling Tribe of Heart documentary, Peacable Kingdom) has touched us with his gorgeous singing. Miyoko Shinner, (Founder of Miyoko’s Cheese) sent us rolling on the floor with laughter as she impressively sang and danced a veganized redeaux of the famous Jazz classic, “I’ve got Rhythm” turning it into, “I’ve got Cheese.” And year after year, Dr. Michael Greger keeps the audience howling as he debuts his newest review of that year’s published science — live for the first time – always at Summerfest. At late night dance parties, we have boogied with Dr. Milton Mills, Allison Rivers Samson, and Paleo-Vegan Author Ellen Jaffe Jones.
Cutting edge science
Because Summerfest conferences always showcase the most cutting edge science – my family has benefitted from important nutrition information 5-10 years before I saw that information being shared anywhere else. For example, I knew the importance of pregnant and nursing mothers consuming preformed DHA (an omega 3 fatty acid.) But outside of Summerfest, if people did know this, they erroneously thought it could only be supplied by consuming fish or fish oil (which are loaded with mercury and PCBs.) But world renowned dietician and fatty acid expert, Brenda Davis was at Summerfest year after year, educating us on this issue and the little known fact at that time, that CLEAN DHA from algae was available in plant-based capsules.
The Vegetarian Hall of Fame
One of the things Summerfest attendees look forward to is that year’s induction of someone new into the Vegetarian Hall of Fame. Rumors run rampant in the buildup to that announcement at the Saturday evening plenary session, as we all try to predict who it will be. Past years have included regular Summerfest speakers, Dr. Michael Klaper, Rae Sikora, Charles and Debra Wasserman, John Pierre, Jo Stepaniak, Neil Barnard, and Hans-Diehl (Who calls Summerfest, “A Love-Fest.”)
Amazing food and speakers
The conference usually draws about 600 to 800 attendees. The majority of folks choose to stay for the entire five days, but lower-cost weekend tickets are available too. A cornucopia of all you can eat dining choices are provided at every meal and covered in the cost of Summerfest attendance. The meals, showcase delicious vegan remakes of traditional American cuisine like pancakes, roasted potatoes, scrambles, soups, chili, plus Mexican, Asian and Mediterranean inspired dishes. The top-notch culinary staff also provide an oil-free/salt-free buffet line, a gourmet raw-food line, and a gluten-free buffet for those wanting different options. Every meal has tons of fresh fruit and a salad bar too. Pizza and desserts round out the selection. Our biggest problem is not lingering too long at the meals (where we are even MORE NOURISHED by the conversation.) We don’t want to miss out on the lectures, cooking demos and exercise classes that follow. Each hour outside of mealtime, we get to choose from at least half a dozen extraordinary speakers providing cutting edge information on health, environmental sustainability, and social justice. Over the years in addition to the presenters I listed previously Summerfest has also featured Vesanto Melina, George Eisman, Victoria Moran, T. Colin Cambell, Lee Hall, Caldwell Esselstyn, Rynn Berry, Gary Francione, John McDougall, Alan Goldhammer, Richard Schwartz, Colleen Patrick Goudreau, Doug Graham and even Jay and Freya Dinshah who founded the very first vegan organization on this side of the globe and probably did more to launch veganism in America than anyone else. But what is unique to Summerfest, when compared with animal rights conferences and vegfests, is that all of this takes place within a framework of authentic veganism that embodies peace, love and the highest ideals for humanity. Vegetarian Summerfest is extraordinary and revitalizing. We leave inspired, and happy.
I am grateful our family began attending Summerfest early enough for me to meet some of the incredible first vegans in America, who have since passed on. But you can still find those who have been part of this movement from its earliest days at Summerfest. I love that my children have gotten to know some of these people, and will be able to talk about them with their grandchildren, along with stories of, “how it used to be.” These 40 year plus vegans, who were amongst the first to raise awareness of veganism in America, bring phenomenal wisdom and life experience to inspire the rest of us. At Summerfest, I often feel like I am talking with the present day incarnations of people like Lucretia Mott, Albert Schweitzer, Sojourner Truth and Mahatma Gandhi.
The Summerfest Children’s Center
As if the main conference, food and wonderful people it draws were not enough – Summerfest provides something that is truly the icing on the cake for families – A professionally staffed children’s center, where parents can securely sign in their kids over the age of two, for a full day of hiking, swimming, crafts, cooperative games, mentoring by older life-long vegan children, and special kid-friendly presentations by some of the main Summerfest speakers. My girls will tell you, that growing up knowing the older vegan kids at the Summerfest children’s center, was critical to helping them feel empowered by our veganism, while living the rest of the year in the not-so-vegan Midwest. Those relationships helped them feel strong when challenged by non-vegan peers. When our children were not quite old enough for the children’s center, but too noisy or squirmy to stay in the front pack while we attended lectures, there were many willing, responsible teenagers happy to babysit them out in the hallway for us too. As our Summerfest week draws to a close, on the very last night, as part of the evening entertainment, the Summerfest children come up on stage and share some musical number or skit that they have created during the week as well. It’s always a highlight for many of us.
The 2018 Summerfest will be July 4-8 in Johnstown, Pa. You can learn more about the North American Vegetarian Society and their conference at Vegetarian Summerfest.
JoAnn Farb is the author of two books, Compassionate Souls – Raising the Next Generation to Change the World (Lantern 2000), and Get Off Gluten. She is the mother of two grown daughters, who have been vegan since conception and grateful that the decision to raise them vegan was made on their behalf, before they were capable of understanding the factors critical to making an informed choice for themselves. JoAnn and her husband Joe live in Kansas. She has a website and blog with articles, recipes, pictures of her family and a deconstruction of the framing that perpetuates unnecessary violence against other beings, at: JoAnn Farb
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