Let’s get one thing straight. I am extremely grateful my son Noah does not have a major food allergy. I know moms that constantly worry about their children eating something that could cause anaphylactic shock (God forbid!). Allergies are totally serious and no laughing matter. However, when it comes to a child's dietary preference, most adults do not take it seriously. My son decided to be a vegan at age 5 (No meat, fish, eggs, or dairy). And in order for me to make people take his choice seriously, I've resorted to referring to his aversion to meat as an allergy.
Here's the thing. Noah decided himself to switch from being vegetarian to vegan before kindergarten, when he told me, “I don’t want to eat my friends or do anything that hurts them.” I gave Noah the facts about dairy cows and chicken eggs in age appropriate terms because I believe honesty is important. But the final decision was entirely his. That was three years ago and he never looked back (I was not vegan myself yet at that time). I respect Noah's choice. But many people do not.
When it comes to dietary restrictions, allergies always get a pass and adults bend over backwards to accommodate those kids (for good reason). But why do so many people not understand my son's decision to follow a strict vegan diet by choice? To me, ethical reasons for food restrictions are just as important.
Noah’s government funded public school in Toronto, like many others in North America, has a strict “nut-free” policy and it’s observed very seriously. No nuts are allowed and no exceptions! There are signs all over the school of scary looking peanuts with a big red slash through them. Furthermore, in Noah’s kindergarten class a few years back there was a fruit and veggie only policy for snacks – yay to healthy eating! The idea was to promote smart food choices at a young age. This rule extended to classroom birthday parties. Only fresh fruits were brought in for all celebrations including Valentine’s Day and holidays. (Nobody wants to celebrate with broccoli or brussels sprouts, but who doesn’t love strawberries and apples?!) That year I did a healthy dance of non-processed food joy. Delicious fresh seasonal fruits replaced the gooey cupcakes topped with jelly worms - I know others moms were happy too. The moms of allergy children were thrilled because there was no chance of hidden nuts, the health conscious moms were happy, and I, the mom of the only vegan in the entire school of 600 kids, knew that my child would not be left out from parties involving food.
Unfortunately, by first grade this policy changed. Apparently food decisions are left up to individual teachers within the school board. I guess it was assumed by age six kids should know what’s healthy and what’s not. (A bit of a conflict since many kids that age still don’t know their hamburger used to have a face, but that’s another story.) In Noah’s class that year there were two kids allergic to dairy and eggs. A note was sent home to parents requesting no dairy whatsoever be sent for lunch in case of cross contamination. Some moms thought that was taking it too far and complained, but I was secretly thrilled. No dairy! Woohoo! Since most birthday parties don’t celebrate with a chunk of steak or a piece of salmon with a candle in the middle, all the treats brought in that year were plant based. It was proof kids can still enjoy a delicious cupcake or cookie without dairy or eggs. After all, it’s not the sugary sweetness I have a problem with (I love dessert!), it’s the animal products stuffed into the treat that doesn’t work for us.
But my small victories were lost by second grade, when this policy went completely out the window. Now anything goes, except of course for the killer nuts. But if you want to promote an all-inclusive education, why not include every child in the celebration? This year there are no kids with allergies in Noah's class, so there are no alternative foods provided during classroom parties.
It seems when it’s an ethical reason not to eat a food it is not taken seriously, but when it’s an allergy, policies change and rules are made (Yes, I know Noah won’t collapse from eating the gelatin filled gummy worm cupcake but his little heart will be broken). Quite often, instead of being congratulated for his strong willed passionate decision, Noah is punished because he is forced to watch his friends devour sugary sweets while he sits sadly staring uncomfortably at the blackboard. After this happened a few times I jumped into action. I ensured the parents knew Noah was vegan and if given a heads up I can send him with his own cruelty-free treat. Despite the ever-rising number of vegans in the world, Noah still remains the only plant-based kid in school.
On a playdate once the mother bought the kids ‘regular’ chocolate cake and glared at me and said defensively, “If Noah wants to eat it he can. It’s his decision to be vegan. It’s not like he is allergic to it.” So that's what got me thinking. Perhaps the world is not ready for passionate children making strong choices. I know that mainstream restaurants aren’t. A typical conversation when the server comes to take our order goes like this;
Miriam: Hi, can you please tell me what vegan options are available?
Server: We have chicken, it’s very popular.
Miriam: Oh. Actually we don’t eat any animals or products from animals. We’re both vegan.
Server: I see. Okay. How about the pizza? There is only cheese and veggies on it.
Miriam: Cow cheese? Like from a cow?
Server: Of course. But it just has a bit of cheese, not too much. So that should be fine.
Miriam: Do you have anything without any animal products?
Server: Um. Bread. Well it has eggs but that should be okay for you, right?... (Long silence) Or you can order the burger and just eat the bun and lettuce (Are you serious?)
After countless visits to mainstream restaurants throughout the United States and Canada (I work as a family travel writer) I decided to take a new approach. I started telling our servers that Noah was allergic to certain foods. It started innocently enough while in the Bahamas (Home of seafood) and I just wanted to know what foods didn’t have fish. Nobody understood why, so by the fourth restaurant I said, “My son is allergic to fish, can you please tell me what foods he can eat?” It was the best white lie I ever told. The chef came out to tell us the specials! I was overjoyed (Except I couldn’t look him in the eyes because I am the worst liar). Noah happily ate his pasta and fresh vegetables made especially for him. My plan was brilliant!
That night I realized what I was doing wrong. When I tell people we are vegan for ethical reasons nobody cares. When I say it’s an allergy everyone springs into action to create original dishes not even on the menu. My only issue is that I obviously taught Noah that lying is wrong and to always tell the truth. But really, what other options do I have? If Noah were allergic to dairy his classroom parties would accommodate him, but since it’s an ethical decision it’s not even a consideration. Well I definitely won’t lie to his school, but you can be damn sure next time we go to a restaurant we are the allergy family. Maybe I should bring a fake EpiPen.
A week later we sit down at a popular Toronto restaurant and I smile innocently and politely say to our server, “We are allergic to dairy, eggs, fish and every kind of meat imaginable. Can we speak with the chef?” Of course my always honest son pipes up rather loudly, “No we aren’t allergic! We just don’t like eating our friends!”
On to the next dilemma: How do I teach Noah when is lying ok?