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John Robbins

trying to make some money to buy her daughter a tricycle for her birthday, because they were poor.

This is traditional family values where you encourage little children, who are completely out of their realm in issues like this, to do something like that? No. That’s the replacement of family values with government values. It’s very patriarchal and it’s very paternalistic.

To me, the value of the family is something that as a culture we still have yet to discover. What would a person be like who grew up with parents within a society who truly cherished them and who worked at every juncture to support their fulfillment and understanding and growth? We don’t know, we have yet to undertake that experiment. I believe that what the human being is capable of is so far beyond what any of us have yet glimpsed.

Rebecca: As you’ve already mentioned, children are particularly sensitive to the animal. What are the meat and dairy industries doing to hide from the children the moral and biological consequences of consuming their products?

John: They undertake what they call `educational programs’ in schools in which materials are provided free of charge. The literature paints an entirely camouflaged picture of the actual situation. All the animals have names like Bessie and are treated with that kind of caring.

The dairy council produces films that are distributed to schools. They have titles like A Visit to Uncle Jim and Aunt Helen’s Dairy Farm, and they make it look so idyllic. The animals are just part of the family. The contrast between that depiction and the actual reality of dairy cows who are penned in, not allowed to graze and pumped up with drugs, is outrageous. It’s propaganda for the industry and the sad thing is that it’s not questioned.

Rebecca: When was the last time that dairy cows were treated like that in America?

John: There are still a few farms left but they simply cannot compete economically with the agri-business’ highly mechanized mass production. It’s not because the factory farms are more efficient because in most cases they aren’t, it’s because the factory farms have the clout in congress to get subsidies for what they are doing: to get tax right-offs, to get free water, to get agricultural colleges and the animal farms departments of universities working for them.

In California, the kindergarten children all receive a coloring book from the California Milk Producer’s Association. Inside there is an outline drawing of a man’s face underneath which there is a question: What did daddy eat today? Then it says: If dad has had his butter, dad is happy, draw a smile on his face; if dad has not had his butter, dad is sad, draw a frown on his face.

Then it asks: Has dad has his cheese today? If so, color his eyes blue, if he hasn’t, color his eyes red. Then you are asked: has dad had his ice cream today? Has dad had his sourcream today. Has dad had his cream cheese today? And you end up with two dads. One has blond hair, blue eyes, pink skin, white teeth and a big smile – there is a racial stereotype operating here also if you hadn’t noticed. The other dad, who has not drenched his body in fat, has red eyes, black teeth, green skin, blue hair and a big frown.

The National Dairy Council is the single largest supplier of the nutritional education materials used in the public schools of the United States. When I first learned about the Dairy Council from my father, I thought it was a gathering of elders of some kind.(laughter) It’s a trade lobby, and it’s purpose which is explicit in it’s by-laws is to promote the sale of dairy products and specifically higher fat dairy products where the most profit is to be made.

Now what five year old child is going to raise their hand and say, “excuse me teacher, what is being taught here? Who provided us with these coloring books? Aren’t all those dairy products the least healthy of the dairy products?”

David: So, you’re saying that what was traditionally seen as a public service is simply free advertising to a particularly vulnerable and captive audience. What do you think can be done to counter the nutritional mis-information that children are receiving in schools?

John: I think people have to be willing to educate themselves and then speak to our children. It’s our duty as adults to see to it that our kids aren’t lied to. It’s particularly abhorrent when we come across this in schools because we put our trust in the educational system as a means of liberating us from merely commercial agendas.

EarthSave, which is a group I founded, has a program called `Healthy People, Healthy Planet’, and we go into schools and talk to kids and teachers and the food service people. The idea is to educate kids and make other options available in the cafeteria like vegetarian, no cholesterol, low fat foods.

Our two pilot programs have been in Madison, Wisconsin and in Santa Cruz, California. We have had vegan options available in every public school in the county and we are learning how to work with the bureaucracy and the board of education. After we were at Santa Cruz High School, over 500 of them signed a petition demanding that the cafeteria serve our meals and saying that they would buy the food.

The other part of it that is very difficult to overcome is that the USDA supplies six billion dollars worth of free food to schools – mainly ground pork and ground beef. If you want to serve high fat and high-salt cheese in schools you can get it free from the USDA, but if you want to serve low fat and low salt cheese you have to pay for it. It’s the same with milk.

So the more impoverished school districts which tend to be in more minority communities are most at the mercy of what’s called the School Lunch Program. It’s positioned as this generous activity of government, but what it really is is a guaranteed market for the worst products of these industries that control the USDA program and who get a very fine price from the USDA for these foods that they can’t sell anywhere else.

The result is that American black communities have the highest rates of high blood pressure, obesity and heart disease in the world.

Rebecca: Are you finding that the children you are talking with are, in general, more aware or less aware about nutrition and ecology than their parents?

John: Some of them are more aware and others are less. The ones who are prisoners of the television are not, but the ones who are waking up – and there is a certain percentage of every generation who will wake up no matter what you do to them – are extremely committed.

At EarthSave we work with local support groups in many communities and gather ongoing updates in environmental and health concerns. We focus on a transition to not simply a sustainable society, but a restorative society. Another EarthSave program is called Y.E.S, Youth for Environmental Sanity. This is a group of youngsters who travel the country speaking to high school assemblies. They speak in about thirty states a year and they do about ten summer camps around the country. My son is doing one in Singapore right now. They reach hundreds of thousands of young people.

The feeling I get is that there are colossal powers at work in the world that mean us well. Perhaps they’re sending in some new troops. Why would someone like me be born into the family that I was born into? I see it as something of a practical joke but there is also a power to working from within.

Let’s say you have a fulcrum and a teeter-totter and humanity is on the bell curve. To accomplish change, some people try to become as pure as they possibly can; they won’t drive a car, they won’t eat anything that has a face, they recycle everything, and they push their personal lifestyle to the max.

Rebecca: People who have become so pure that when they are exposed to any pollution whatsoever, they immediately get sick.

John: Right. They do have a role to play, but they are disconnected to a certain extent from the process. Others of us feel that we will create more change if everybody moved six inches rather than a small group of people moved to the extreme edge. So, how can we accomplish that? You’re not going to do it from the edge – if you challenge too high a percentage of people’s assumptions, you lose credibility and become seen as a fringe phenomenon.

Some of us, born within the culture, stay within it even when part of our hearts and psyches see through it completely, in order to play a role in the turning.

David: How do you, or do you, think it is possible to solve the world hunger crisis?

John: The first thing is to recognize that it exists and to stop shutting it out. As a culture we have to move away from valuing a meat-based diet as a reflection of prosperity because there is not enough to go around – it takes too great a toll on the agricultural base to be shared.

The problem is that when some people do become aware of the scarcity their reaction is, there’s not enough to go around therefore I’m going to get mine. They say, “I’m sorry if the animal has to be killed or tortured or people have to go hungry but my primary imperative is to survive.” That state of consciousness is a reflection of the level of fear in the world.

Rebecca: I imagine that it would be extremely hard for you to continue your work without hope, but you must also have dark moments when you are reminded of what you are up against. Are you optimistic about the future of

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