Vegetarian and veganism is on the rise, so why isn’t this lifestyle being supported in our children’s schools?

By: Emma Hurst, MLC, your representative for animal rights in NSW Parliament.

A growing number of Australian children are not eating meat or animal products. Many now follow a vegan or vegetarian diet for religious reasons, environmental concerns, or distress over animal cruelty. This shift reflects recent research by Roy Morgan that shows 2.5 million Australians are following an all (or almost all) vegetarian diet, up from 1.7 million in 2012. But with a growing number of families deciding not to consume meat or animal products, why are we still hearing reports that vegetarian and vegan children aren’t feeling supported in schools?

Sam’s story

10 year old Sam says that he and his brother initially faced difficulty explaining to their classmates why they don’t eat animal products because of what was being taught in the school curriculum. Sam says:
“[Our teachers] make you watch videos of healthy eating and tell you that you need to eat meat and dairy and eggs, and they say things like having a ham sandwich for lunch is good… I’ve had arguments about the fact that you don’t need to eat meat to be healthy, but because of what we’re
told in school lots of kids say you have to eat meat and people are supposed to eat meat.”

Sam adds that it’s not just his classmates who can be dismissive of following a vegan diet, but teachers and parents too. He recalls that when his brother raised animal agriculture as a climate change threat in class it was rejected by his teacher.

His mother says this isn’t uncommon, especially when vegan and vegetarian diets aren’t included in a ‘healthy eating’ curriculum:
“I’ve seen a lot of my sons’ friends realise that an animal has died for their food and not want to eat it, but are told to eat meat by parents and teachers who claim it is necessary. Children and family choices to not eat meat or animal products should be respected, but it’s difficult for them when the
benefits or reasons for following a vegan or vegetarian diet aren’t being taught in schools.”

What can be done?

Communicating with teachers and other parents about why your family follows a vegetarian or vegan diet is a great first step. Often once you tell a teacher or parent at your school that your child is vegan or vegetarian, the school can help to connect your child and family with other vegans or
vegetarians in the school community and provide additional support. You can also offer to help at school events, helping to introduce other families to vegetarian and vegan options and foods that may otherwise be unfamiliar to them. Creating familiarity and normalizing food choices helps to overcome any misperceptions or confusion that may come from other families.

Overseas, online support groups for vegetarian and vegan children (with parent moderation) have also been established to help children struggling with or being bullied about their food in school. With Australia being the third fastest growing vegan nation in the world, and with our multicultural
population that includes a large number of families abstaining from animal products for religious reasons, there is undoubtedly a need for something similar to be established here. Reaching out online and building a community with other vegan and vegetarian families, may also help give
children the support and encouragement they need to feel that they are not alone, and to recognize that vegetarian and vegan eating is very popular.

Finally, a more inclusive school curriculum is key to providing much needed support. Teaching students to respect the dietary choices of others helps to normalise animal free diets and create a welcoming environment for all children. While updating the school curriculum may be a long transition, with the increasing number of Australians choosing a vegetarian or vegan diet not looking to slow down, it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing changes.

With the right combination of communication and education, vegan and vegetarian children will have the support they need to thrive in the school environment. Times are changing, and with more open and inclusive conversations about why families are choosing to follow animal-free diets our children will have the confidence in the school yard that they need in order to learn and prosper.

Emma Hurst

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