Vegan Deli

Vegan Deli  by Jo Stepaniak

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Raising Vegetarian Children
by Jo Stepaniak, M.S.Ed., & Vesanto Melina M.S., R.D.

Raising Vegetarian Children

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The Name Game: Coming to Terms

Because there is a close connection between veganism and vegetarianism, many people - including the public, media, health care professionals, and even practitioners themselves - often unwittingly twist the meaning of these terms. The word "vegetarian" was coined in 1847 by the founders of the Vegetarian Society of Great Britain. (Prior to that time, people who abstained from eating meat were called "Pythagoreans.") The definition of "vegetarian" has not changed. It has always meant and continues to mean "a person who does not eat meat, fish, or fowl, and who may or may not eat dairy products or eggs."

The word "vegetarian" has always dealt solely with what a person eats; it has never delved into the reasoning behind a person's decision to practice a meat-free diet and therefore does not address motivation. Consequently, vegetarians embrace a wide range of perspectives and rationales. There are vegetarians who believe a plant-based diet is the most healthful, or that it will help them lose weight, or that it is kinder to the environment. For others it is a political statement or an economic solution. Still others are motivated by their compassion for animals. There are a number of groups and individuals for whom vegetarianism is part of their religious convictions or spiritual practices. Some view their vegetarianism as temporary or a matter of circumstance; others see it as a lifetime commitment.

Unlike vegetarianism, veganism has always had a specific, unifying philosophy associated with it, and, in addition, has always dealt with much more than what one eats. The term "vegan" (pronounced VEE-gn) was coined by Donald Watson in 1944, and was at once adopted by the group who founded The Vegan Society in England later that year. The Vegan Society was the first organized secular group to promote a compassionate lifestyle. Their definition of "veganism," which is accepted as the decisive standard worldwide, is as follows:


Veganism is a way of living which excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom, and includes a reverence for life. It applies to the practice of living on the products of the plant kingdom to the exclusion of flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey, animal milk and its derivatives, and encourages the use of alternatives for all commodities derived wholly or in part from animals.

In its Articles of Association, the legal documents of the Society, a slightly different version is presented:


Veganism denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude - as far as is possible and practical - all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals, and the environment.

Both interpretations begin by stating that veganism is a "way of life," and "a philosophy." Neither emphasizes diet over other aspects of compassionate living, because in vegan practice no one area is more significant than another; all are expected to be implemented simultaneously. In the second version, a disclaimer about practicality has been inserted, revealing that the founders acknowledged the impossibility of totally divesting oneself of all animal products and derivatives in the modern world. This phrase is also critical because it helps practitioners understand that veganism is not about personal perfection or "purity," but rather the avoidance and elimination of exploitation of and cruelty to animals. The first rendition mentions "reverence for life," with no hierarchy of value given to the life to which it is referring. Therefore, the statement is inclusive, asserting that all life forms are equally deserving of reverence. It also delineates the specific foods that are to be avoided, and both definitions encourage the use and development of alternatives to animal commodities.

The purpose and parameters of veganism are clearly outlined in these definitions. They offer a distinct contrast to vegetarianism, which is concerned strictly with diet, and even then asserts that certain foods may be left up to personal choice. On the other hand, the explanation of veganism leaves virtually no room for individual interpretation. Although it recognizes the impossibility of perfect implementation of its tenets, it provides unequivocal guidelines for not only food choices but all other aspects of living. Furthermore, it presents a reasoned doctrine that clarifies the specific rationale that underscores the choice to be vegan. Such a coalescence of consciousness is something that isn't included in vegetarianism. Yet it has, from its inception, been an integral and pivotal aspect of being vegan.

When the word "vegetarian" first came into existence, there weren't different "types" of vegetarians. The terms "strict vegetarian," "pure vegetarian," and "total vegetarian" are neologisms that have been bandied about for a few decades, perhaps even longer, with no specific definitions attached to them. To some people, the adjective "strict" means that they never waver in their avoidance of flesh foods, but it may or may not mean that they eat dairy, eggs, and honey or other bee products. To others it means that they are severely "limited" or "restricted" in their food choices. To still others it means that they avoid all animal products and their derivatives completely. How it is construed depends on the person using the term, those who hear it, and how each interprets it. The descriptive words "pure" and "total" seem to refer more to the completeness of one's vegetarian diet, i.e. avoiding dairy and eggs and possibly honey, although some people might associate the adjective "pure" with goodness or cleanliness. None of these words refers to a person's motivation, since vegetarians have diverse reasons for not eating meat. Therefore, a "total vegetarian" can and might have convictions similar to a vegan's, but the difference is the extent that one puts this ideology into practice. A person can be a "total vegetarian" and still eat honey and wear leather shoes. Someone defined as a vegan, however, cannot.

The neologism "dietary vegan" has been used to describe "total vegetarians" - people who avoid all animal products in diet only. This term is problematic because it distorts the meaning of "vegan" by narrowing it down to issues related solely to food. Veganism is not about food; it is about reverence for life. By minimizing it's substance, we diminish the word's value. With this fandangle term, "vegan" loses its defining characteristics and ultimately becomes meaningless. What, then, differentiates "dietary vegan" from "total vegetarian" or "total vegetarian" from "vegetarian"? Suddenly we have a confusing, oxymoronic set of useless vocabulary that confounds all who hear it. Not surprisingly, the misinformed masses emerge, vigorously defending the language they believe is accurate and fitting.

There are groups of people who decry what they call the "labeling" of people because, they contend, labels are used to exclude rather than include others. Certainly this can happen, especially when monikers are used to alienate and stereotype rather than objectively identify. It has become politically incorrect to attach a category to individuals, because, in today's culture, hurtful epithets frequently replace unbiased designations. Yet there are many classifications that serve a very real and valuable function. For instance, it is often helpful to know who is left-handed, a Catholic, a homosexual, hearing impaired, or a single mother. Having an easy way to identify ourselves helps us locate others who are similar to us. These are impersonal descriptive categories that help us distinguish particular characteristics about a person. There is nothing inherently positive or derogatory about them. Nevertheless, some people can and do associate negative stereotypes to these groups, thereby turning perfectly harmless descriptive words into cruel labels.

The words "vegan" and "vegetarian" simply help us to clarify lifestyles and determine who among us shares our outlook and experiences. They also give us a chance to identify ourselves so we can gather together and support each other in our similar views, challenges, hopes, and desires. Without such terminology, we would each be segregated from each other and alone. In this way, "labels" serve to unite rather than isolate us. But they are helpful only if they are used correctly and retain their substance.

The words we use to define and distinguish ourselves are not intrinsically "negative" or "positive." In fact, the words themselves hold no bias whatsoever. It is the human interpretation of these terms that infuses them with prejudicial meaning. If we think that having blue eyes is superior to brown eyes, then those of us with brown eyes may be offended by anything having to do with blue-eyed people. On the other hand, blue-eyed people may feel they are better than brown-eyed people simply by virtue of their eye color. The color of our eyes does not elevate one group of people over another. It is our own partiality toward one color or another that causes us to falsely believe this is true.

While there are different types of vegetarians - lacto, ovo, ovolacto, total, fruitarian, macrobiotic, living foods - there is only one type of vegan. Being a vegetarian or a vegan are not good or bad designations. They simply are what they are. If we see one as better than the other, we must remember that it is our bias at play. Each of these words has a very specific definition, and honoring these definitions is the only way for their usefulness and intended meanings to remain intact.


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