Last night, we stumbled upon “Vegucated“, a documentary about 3 New Yorkers who volunteered to go vegan for 6 weeks. Winner of numerous awards (Best documentary at Toronto Independent Film Festival, Chris Award for best educational film at the Columbus International Film & Video Festival, Best food issue film at the Cinema Verde Environmental Film & Arts Festival) it is worth a watch, especially with someone who has been on the fence about going vegan after observing your lifestyle with a twinge of curiosity.
The experiment andensuing film is the brainchild of Marissa Miller Wolfson, an avid food activist and vegan. She follows three meat and cheese loving omnivores as they take their first steps into the world of the “Alien Vegan”:
Tesla Lobo: a 22-year old college student from Queens who claims to not like vegetables or beans; Brian Flegel: a bartender living in Harlem who originated the idea that “vegans are from outerspace“; and Ellen Mausner: a psychiatrist/stand up comic/single mom who loves hot dogs but hates cholesterol.
The subjects began their adventure with a few simple medical tests to measureweight, blood pressure and cholesterol. The rumor we’ve all heard is that a vegan diet will lower all three numbers. Would this be true for Tesla, Brian and Ellen? They don’t know how lucky they were that Joel Fuhrman, M.D. (“Eat to Live”) was their doctor and was able to give them a crash course in vegan nutrition before they set out.
One great thing I think that Marissa did was introduce our 3 to a vegan diet first, tasting new things (especially in the case of Tesla who looked like she was going to burst into tears at her first taste of kale), and facing head on the difficult task of phasing out their food routines. The grocery stores presented a veritable cornucopia of vegan foods (veganaise, tofu, vegan deli slices, cheeses, “meats”) but also a lot of hidden treasures like (my favorite!) Oreos and Teddy Grahams. Although, contrary to Tesla’s refrigerator & confidence, Ragu Traditional is NOT vegan.
It’s only after a couple of weeks of being vegan, that Marissa shows them films of factory farm conditions of dairy cows, beef cattle, pigs, chickens (for meat and eggs), “free range” turkeys, male chick “disposal”, and of course slaughter. All the complaints about the new & weird foods they were eating seemed to magically disappear, to be replaced by a enthusiasm for stepping outside the system with this vegan diet.
Their paths crossed vegan body builder Kenneth Williams, T. Colin Campbell (The China Study), Milton Mills M.D. (PCRM), and they were able to spend significant time with Jason Tracy and Cayce Mell (OohMahNee Farm Animal Sanctuary). After a visit to an egg farm, which only confirmed what they had seen in the films about egg farms, they were given two spent hens which they brought to OohMahNee. Later, Cayce took the group on a tour of an abandoned slaughterhouse. Brilliantly inter-cut with footage from actual slaughter, the horrors of the last moments of an animal’s life are thrust center screen. On the return trip, they stopped at another factory farm, where they discovered rotting bodies of discarded pigs. Tesla was particularly moved by this scene, and it seemed as if her fate as a vegan was sealed.
I think, though, the beauty of this film is in the exploration of the emotions involved with going vegan. These are people who didn’t see animal suffering and then go vegan as many vegetarians and vegans often do. Instead, they started from a point of dubiousness and moved tobelief. Their mindset was interesting to watch, and I rooted loud & enthusiastically for them throughout the film. Could they do it?
It was apparent that Ellen was hooked. Her phone call to a free range operation began with her kids giggling in the background, but once they heard what the representative was explaining, they soon turned serious. They prove that once you hear the truth about the food industry, you can’t unhear, you can’t unsee. These kids were given a great gift at their tender young age. We literally watch the birth of some new vegetarians!
Brian seemed enthusiastic, but to a point. At first, he was saying he could see himself being vegan for the rest of his life, but as the end of the experiment neared, it looked as if he might go back to his omnivorous ways. That was until a visit with his parents. The attitude of his parents seemed to leave a frustrated taste in his mouth. The conversation was cut short, but his father was beginning to explain that carnivores need meat, Brian was correcting him but then … cut. It would have been very nice to hear the explanation (which Brian heard straight from Dr. Milton Mills’ mouth) about how humans are omnivores which evolved from vegetarians to be able to eat a variety of foods in order to ensuresurvival in a wide range of habitats.
Tesla had the most difficult struggle of all, no thanks to her family which appeared to show zero support for her choice. She had to face questions like “how will you live without meat?” and a culture of meat in her house. The impression I was left with, was that her parents actually thought she was going to get sick and die if she didn’t eat meat; people who don’t eat meat are just crazy and they would prove this by not cooking for her thereby ousting her from the family culture. Tesla had to cook her own meal after her father finished cooking for the rest of the family. My heart went out to her… that truly must have been painful for her.
Tesla called a meeting with Marissa at the end saying she wasn’t sure if she was going to be able to stick with the vegan lifestyle because she was tired of going to restaurants and not having anything to eat. Deep down, I know that her struggles stem from her family’s resistance to this whole situation, but easier for her to talk about restaurants. I was a little disappointed, again, that the vegans at the table (blogger Jasmin Singer “Our Hen House” and animal advocate Moni Wowries), including Marissa, did not say a single word to her about how she can and should be able to eat at any restaurant.
The Valley Vegan was not pleased with this conversation one tiny bit as I have dedicated the last 5 years to proving to you all that not only is there usually something available on the menu, but even if there isn’t the chef will either modify an existing item or make you something off menu. Why was this not said to her? Why? I’m very disappointed in this scene.
It was great, though, to see that Tesla overcame her family obstacles to remainvegetarian. Dealing with a vegan is difficult for most people under the best of circumstances, and someday, when she’s a little older, a little wiser and a little more assertive, she can address the vegan option once again if she chooses.
Brian described himself as “mostly vegan” in the end. What that means, we didn’t really find out. But, it is a huge difference for him to go from avid bacon eater to this new healthy routine. No matter his changes, he has done himself, the animals, the environment, a great service.
It comes as no surprise that Ellen now describes herself as vegan. Initially concerned about a family history of heart disease, she was pleased to discover that her weight, blood pressure and cholesterol had all decreased. In fact, those numbers went down for all three participants.
Inspired yet? Share this movie with anyone who shows the slightest curiosity at your veganism. Share it with someone who says “I want to try vegetarianbut I like meat too much.” Share it with your vegetarian friends – maybe they’ll go vegan.
Regardless, we can all stand to be a bit more “Vegucated“!!