Veganism At School: How Students Respond To A Vegan Month Initiative
Schools are a place for discussion on a wide variety of topics, between teachers, students and among students themselves. While environmental and sustainability issues might be commonly discussed in some schools, animal consumption is often neglected — even though the consumption of animal products is an important aspect of environmental issues. Worse still, when talking about food from a nutritional perspective, the environmental and political dimensions can be downplayed, and animal consumption can be normalized.
Although rare, some educational interventions can be implemented in schools. For example, teachers can organize seminars on the consequences of factory farming, present graphical content on the use of animals or even take students to meet animals on farms to see how they live.
The objective of this study was to examine students’ responses and opinions regarding the consumption or exclusion of animal products from their diets in a particular educational setting. This particular context was a food intervention organized by the school: one month of vegan meals, with the data collected during this month.
The school was located in an Swedish urban municipality, was private, and had about 800 students. Students involved, aged 16 to 18, discussed the vegan month initiative and animal consumption in general in small groups. A total of 67 students took part in the discussions, including 49 females and 18 males. 13 groups were created, with between 3 and 7 students per group, in addition to the researcher. Each group discussion lasted about 25 to 45 minutes. The researcher participated in the discussion but limited their intervention to encouraging students to explore the topic and to clarify and summarize their responses.
Although this vegan month was viewed favourably by some students, others viewed it so negatively that they protested against it. They did this by wearing red during one day, writing articles in the local newspaper (some articles were still favourable to the initiative) or even leaving the classroom when the initiative was announced. For some of these students, the exclusion of meat from their diet provoked strong emotional responses.
From all the students’ discussions, it emerged that the school’s initiative, and plant-based diets in general, were seen as political issues, and that they were perceived to be on the left side of the political spectrum. According to the author, this supposed political orientation was a reason for some students to disidentify themselves from the initiative, because they didn’t want to be associated with the left.
In addition to being associated with the left, the exclusion of animal products was associated with femininity. Eating plant-based meals was negatively viewed by men because it disrupted masculine stereotypes and eating habits. Considering the initiative as a political issue, many students expressed their disagreement with it. For them, the school should remain a politically neutral place, and whether or not to eat meat is a personal decision.
According to the author, these discussions with students revealed an important piece of information, namely that the exclusion of animal products to reduce the impact of food on the environment cannot be separated from politics. A school will be perceived as politically neutral if it serves a range of animal products, but will be perceived as politically oriented if it decides to withdraw some of these products. The reason seems to be that old eating habits are perceived as neutral; they are followed automatically and without criticism. And a change in these habits then becomes a political issue. Since these habits include meat consumption, the shift to a plant-based diet is therefore political.
This is particularly disturbing for teachers, who may find it very difficult to address these topics, which are perceived as private and political. Having rational arguments for plant-based diets will not take away students’ political perception of the exclusion of animal products.
To overcome these difficulties, the author suggests teachers talk more openly about these “political” topics in class. Even though some students were opposed to this initiative, they still wanted to discuss it. Such interventions could be more favourably received if discussions with students were organized beforehand. Additionally, the author suggests providing students with educational content enabling them to understand the economic stakes behind the consumption of animal products, such as the influence of lobbies on schools. In doing so, they could be better equipped to reflect on and criticize these societal issues.