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“You can’t tell that to a kid”

Can kids handle the truth about industrial meat?

We have a great living-history museum nearby. One of those places with relocated old buildings and re-enactors who make you feel like you’ve slipped back to the 19th century. During a visit last year, I was in the kitchen of one of the homes churning butter with my daughter (yes, that is as cool as it sounds), and I struck up a conversation with another visitor. I told her we’d just seen a pig-slaughtering pen being built at the village’s teaching farm. The museum, which used to sell its pigs every winter, had decided instead to start butchering them on-site.

I mentioned how, initially, I’d blanched at the idea of a killing pen, imagining a hand-to-hoof struggle and log walls awash in blood. But then the farm interpreter explained the process, how the pen lets individual pigs get comfortable in a small space and lets handlers control the pig’s diet in its final days, until a farmer goes into the pen and quickly kills the pig.

As a vegetarian, I still found the process unsettling, but I could appreciate that it was humane, and that it had its place in teaching about 19th century agriculture. And that’s what I told the woman next to me at the butter churn.

At this point, the interpreter in the kitchen jumped in, telling me that people in the 19th century didn’t have the “luxury” of being vegetarian, and that she regularly has to explain to school groups that early Americans didn’t have the choices we have today. “Kids come through and they say, ‘You shouldn’t eat meat. It’s mean to the animals,’ ” she said. “I tell them, ‘Well, they had to eat animals or their kids would starve.’ ”

Yes, that’s true, I told her, but there’s also a big difference between how early Americans raised (or hunted) and killed their animals, and how the majority of animals are slaughtered today. Perhaps she could mention that from now on as well?

“Oh no,” she said, “you can’t tell that to a kid.”


We explain it to our vegetarian 6-year-old. Surely someone can explain it to an omnivorous 6th grader. Many of these kids watch violent movies. They play violent video games. They engage in mock battle. They know where meat comes from. So tell me again: Why can’t they handle the truth about how animals are killed for food?

If here, at a teaching museum, trained educators can’t broach this subject, what does that say about our opinion of kids? Children are smart, eager to learn and capable, even at a young age, of critical thought. Treat them with respect, tell them the truth and they might just surprise you.

We all have our limits. I mean, even I wouldn’t take my 6-year-old to see the movie Food Inc. (though I know someone who did, and I understand the desire to do so). But my daughter certainly will see the movie when she’s a bit older, at which point we’ll also work our way through Michael Pollan’s new young readers edition of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” (Click here for an excellent review from 13-year-old Orren Fox.) And I’m seriously tempted to show her The Meatrix video (3 minutes, 30 seconds):

In the meantime there are plenty of opportunities for smaller, age-appropriate conversations about where meat, milk and eggs come from. Around here we talk a lot about the “happy cows” and “happy chickens” (i.e., raised outside, on grass) that provide our local milk and eggs. We visit small farms and discuss how conditions there are much different from conditions on factory farms.

I’m also frequently surprised by the discussion opportunities that pop up in children’s books. Recent example: In “Louise, the Adventures of a Chicken,” by Kate DiCamillo and Harry Bliss, Louise leaves her farm for adventures abroad. At one point she’s captured and held in a cage with other chickens. She goes all Norma Rae and they break free with a rally cry: “Chickens do not belong in cages. Chickens must roam free.”

What? I take it where I can get it.

What do you think? How much should we tell children about the dicier side of the food chain? What kinds of conversations have you had with your kids?

Update as of May 3: This week I’m entering this post in the Get the Junk Out blog carnival. Check out the link for other posts on factory-farmed meat and sustainable alternatives. Also see my follow-up post about the movie “Food Inc.” (And we did end up showing our daughter The Meatrix.)

This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase a product through an affiliate link, your cost will be the same, but I will receive a small commission to help fund the work of writing this blog. Please know that I link only to products I value and support. Thank you!

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{ 21 comments… add one }

  • Sarah March 29, 2010, 10:34 pm

    Hey Christina,

    I’m in the midst of doing a lot of thinking about our food and where it comes from. I have a soon-to-be three year old and haven’t yet had many conversations about the food we eat, but am realizing that it’s an important thing to do. She’s very interested right now in helping in the kitchen and watches intently as I prepare food, so I know she’s absorbing it all. I just need to show her more about where it all comes from. I’m looking forward to the summer and visiting some of our neighbors’ gardens and perhaps some of the local U-pick farms. I’m also going to be doing a lot of learning about the things we eat and making some modifications, and she’ll be right there with me. She understands quite a bit and I think involving her in these steps will be invaluable.

    I think your blog is great and will be following!



    • Christina March 29, 2010, 11:19 pm

      Sarah, great to have you here. I just visited your blog. Good for you starting your own food revolution! I’ll be interested to hear how it progresses.

      (And thanks so much for linking to my blog. I really appreciate that.)

  • Beth March 29, 2010, 10:35 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. I am one who has considered not only taking my 6 year old to see Food, Inc, but my 4 year old as well (though I have not yet). They raise our chickens and ducks and know well where our food comes from. They also raise the veg in our garden and help harvest and cook it.

    We have the book “Lousie, Adventures of a Chicken” as well!

    • Christina March 29, 2010, 11:21 pm

      I think 6-year-olds would get a lot of what’s in the movie, but so much of it is talk-y and cerebral (though in an accessible way) that I fear most of it would fly over their heads. But let me know if you do it. Would love to hear your kids’ reactions.

  • Tonya March 30, 2010, 9:02 am

    I loved the video meatrix- we have our own family farm, we aren’t vegetarians, but have many friends who are. I totally believe in being humane and kosher when killing for our own consumption. I also think kids should know that an animal has to sacrifice it’s life for ours. All five of my kids know and understands some of our hens are going to end up in the pot. (even my 4yr.old) And they know the difference between the industry and a free range animal. Kids should know, as Americans I think we have a tendancy to make wimps out of our boys. Let them play with guns, let them know about the food industry, and MAKE them go outside instead of sitting in front of an X-BOX!!!

  • Melissa B March 30, 2010, 9:16 am

    Great topic, handled well. We’ve had these conversations with our daughter, who is 5. When we ate free-range venison provided by my brother-in-law, we talked about how different it was from the kinds of meat people buy in the store. We talked some about factory meat, and have since. Where I am very careful is to avoid having her take on any personal guilt at this age. I try to be clear that these are adult choices, but that it is good for her to know about them.

    Being super honest: We’ve drastically cut back on factory meat, but we haven’t yet completely eliminated it, and I don’t want her to feel responsible and build up a guilt complex around food for my lack of discipline.

  • Adrienne March 30, 2010, 10:07 am

    Great blog! I look forward to reading more of what you have to say. I too am trying to teach my children healthful eating habits and try to explain things in a way that they can easily understand – such as if you can’t pronounce an ingredient, chances are it’s not good for you. (They are 9 and 6.) And yes, they are all much smarter than “others” give them credit for. I hate kids menus! I’m also trying to work with the schools (through volunteer opportunities) to give the children more food and nutrition education, as well as trying (but not succeeding yet!) to get better school lunches. Hopefully we’ll get there one day! Thanks for starting this blog – good luck!

  • Adriana March 30, 2010, 10:20 am

    Hi Christina–saw your post on the Park Slope Parents listserve. Love your blog!

    I actually did show my son the Meatrix when he was four. It’s a good launching pad for explaining our food choices. We do eat meat, but we buy either directly from farms or from the food coop, and I make sure my son knows what animal he’s eating every time I serve meat. (I think, if you do eat meat, serving it on the bone goes a long ways towards bringing home the idea that you’re eating an animal as well.) The point is, kids can take this information at an early age. We’re teaching them compassion as well as food literacy.

    • Christina March 30, 2010, 11:39 am

      Great point about telling your son what animal he’s eating. That goes such a long way toward both demystifying the process and helping kids develop that compassion. You’ve convinced me to show my daughter the Meatrix video. Honestly, I think my only hesitation was whether she’d get the Matrix references. But, you know, I haven’t seen the Matrix movies, either! And the video simply puts a visual on a lot of what she’s been hearing anyway. I’ll report back.

  • Audrey March 30, 2010, 11:08 am

    Thanks for opening a discussion about getting kids in on the food-ag convo, Christina. I work with ‘underpriveleged’ kids, from pre-K to pre-teen, in garden-based food education programs. So far, I’ve avoided much discussion of the negatives… the negatives of dairy, meat, and processed foods, for instance. We’ve glanced at them, but I try to instead emphasize the positives of local, organic, cost-efficient and produce-based food choices. I feel this gives kids more power to actually DO something, even if they come from families that buy pork and beans from WalMart. This way, it’s not a scare tactic that parents might bristle from, but a tool for a healthier lifestyle. Kids from my preteen program last summer reported changes in their home meals… And while the cooking we did was all vegan, we made sure to mention that, for instance, you might want to throw in chicken with the stirfry or cheese on the bean burgers.

    The kids learned why certain food choices were better for them and the environment, but were not told that many of the food choices their parents make are “bad,” since displacing current mainstream consumer practices is, in my mind, something that can be accomplished more effectively with small, positive changes in eating habits than with red alerts about industrial practices that may seem very distant and unrelated to the daily lives many kids and families.

    However, I do think parents who choose to expose their children to the messages of Food Inc, etc should go for it. Kids are too sheltered, and if you think yours can take it, let them be the town criers on the playground. I just hope kids who get these messages so young won’t lecture and stigmatize other kids whose moms pack them TV dinners for lunch.

  • Audrey March 30, 2010, 11:17 am

    However, I’m also sure there are many ways the horrors of industrial meat can be taught effectively to a diverse group of young kids, and I’m interested in hearing more. Talking about “happy cows” and such seems like a good way to teach the negatives through the positives. Thanks for the link to young reader’s Omnivore’s Dilemma.

    • Christina March 30, 2010, 12:41 pm

      Audrey, I think you bring a really valuable perspective to this discussion. You’re right about needing to make this relatable and relevant. And surely the quickest way to stymie progress is with a lecture (on the playground or otherwise).

      When our daughter started preschool, we made the decision to supply her snacks every day rather than let her eat what the school provided. That’s partly because we’re vegetarian and non-veg stuff can show up in sneaky ways, but it’s also because most of the snacks contained ingredients we choose not to eat (trans fats, HFCS, artificial colors and flavors, etc.).

      We wondered if we’d be causing trouble by having Tess be “different” from her peers, and I certainly didn’t want the teachers/school to think I was passing judgment on them. But in the end we realized it would be a good thing for Tess to learn early on that it’s OK to make different food choices. We kept it casual (she was allowed to have birthday/holiday treats along with the rest of the class), never got preachy and it never once caused a problem. What it did do, however, was quietly raise awareness among the other kids and teachers. I’m not saying anything radical happened, but I did notice a steady improvement in the school-provided snacks and party fare. It’s nice to think we might have helped make that happen.

      Tess does sometimes ask why other people eat things that are unhealthy, and I explain that not everyone understands yet how bad some things are, but that they’re learning. So far that seems to satisfy her. (We talk about veg vs. meat eaters, too, but this doesn’t seem to confound her. We’ve asked if she wants to try meat, and she always says no like the thought has never even occurred to her.)

      One thing we’ve tried to instill in Tess is the notion that we never say anything negative about food that we’re eating or that anyone else is eating. This started as a way to keep the door open on a food she might try but not (initially) like. But it’s evolved into a way to show respect for all food choices, whether we agree with them or not. If she doesn’t like something she’s eating, it’s OK to tell us that, but we don’t want to hear, for instance, how gross something is.

      As she’s gotten older, that’s gotten harder, since kids think it’s hilarious to say gross things about everything. But we’ve really noticed a difference in how Tess responds to food she doesn’t like (on her plate or someone else’s) vs. how other kids respond to food they don’t like. So there’s that.

      The “happy cows” thing seems a little trite, I know (because, really, how do we know they’re happy?), but it’s been an effective shorthand for explaining that we like to get our food from animals who live outside and eat what they’re meant to eat. Of course that works pretty well when we’re talking about milk and eggs. Meat gets a little trickier (since, um, the happiness ends), but even then I think kids are able to appreciate the difference between an animal who lived a good life and was killed humanely, and one who wasn’t.

      Wow, I just wrote another entire blog post.

  • Karen Bannan from NaturalAsPossibleMom March 30, 2010, 3:26 pm

    I am struggling with the same issues. Although I am not vegetarian — wish I was! — I only buy meat that is humanely and organically raised. I don’t eat pork. I can barely eat chicken anymore. My big girl has asked about how meat is produced and where it comes from. I have told her the truth, and discussed why we only buy meat from certain stores. But I haven’t really explained EXACTLY why, for example, we only buy cage-free, organic eggs.

    Great blog! I’m putting it on my must-read list!

  • Nipa March 30, 2010, 7:18 pm

    I gave up meat (for the most part) when we moved to the country and I started really thinking about what my dinner used to be ( warm fuzzy critters). I’ve always been afraid that my kids would have the same reaction and given that they are extremely picky, I didn’t want them to give anything else up. So, I just explain that we try to eat only what’s organic (or in their words “without any nasty chemicals”) and we try to support local producers.

    My husband, on the other hand, believes that as long as we present the topic the right way, that the kids will be conscious of what they eat, but not be deterred from eating meat. He has ordered some meat chickens, so we’ll see which way the kids sway.

    I’ll keep you posted. :)

  • Ryan Platte April 2, 2010, 8:54 am

    We’re new farmers in the Rochester, NY area with five young boys, so it’s a topic of interest for us too. Though we tend to talk about EVERYthing in front of them. Then hold our faces in horror as they share only the choicest, most controversial, or hardest to hear parts to people we don’t know well yet! But even with the occasional embarrassment, we believe it’s vitally important to keep them involved and engaged with what we’re doing and why.

    On the other hand, this “method” attracts the folks who are ready to hear very quickly! It’s as efficient at starting conversations as it is at ending them!

    • Christina April 2, 2010, 10:01 am

      Ryan, thanks so much for stopping by. It’s great to have the farmer-parent perspective on this.

  • Tricia April 8, 2010, 1:46 pm

    I’m a farmer and we’ve had animals since my son was 2 years old, he is now 13. He has grown up knowing where the eggs come from and the meat comes from. He doesn’t want to eat other meat if we happen to be somewhere else – unless he knows how it was raised! He is very in tune with it all and never had a problem with it. He has major problems with industrialized agriculture.
    We are omnivores by choice. Also by choice to raise all our own meat ( alot of out vegs also) and have made a small farm business out of it.
    I was never raised around animals or had not much to do with any farming – we had a small veggie garden but my parents really were into the convenience of store bought. It has been a slow change here as we raise our own animals the way we want – and yes I can tell when my cow is happy (I have our own milk cow- actually I just got a 2nd one). The more we find out out how the rest of the world raises animals the more secure we are that we are doing it right.
    But for those that don’t eat meat – I hope I haven’t offended. We all make our choices- kind of nice we can do that!
    One thing I really want more people to realize and do some research is where exactly is all your food coming from. What that country’s standards are, where the irrigation water comes from , what fertilizers are approved, and is it a good thing or bad thing when food is coming from half a world away? Why oh why do we import apples? garlic? soybeans? milk? meat?
    Seems you all are doing a good job of looking into it all!
    Tell your kids – they can take it!

    • Christina April 8, 2010, 11:55 pm

      Your son sounds like a great kid. And I’m glad to know I can now use my “happy cows” reference in good conscience.

  • Angie April 21, 2010, 7:55 pm

    Great post Chris. I make monthly trips to the GCVM as part of my 3rd grade curriculum every year. We talk very deeply about the role animals played during the time period. Not only do we discuss that the animals were used for meat, we talk about how just about every part was used. One year, a couple of my kids had the opporunity to prepare “covers” for quince that had just been canned into jelly. They had no idea that what they were stretching for the covers was actually the bladder of a pig. Surprisingly, when they found out, they weren’t grossed out. It gave them a real appreciation for how important food was back then. One thing that many of my kids get out of these trips (especially the cooking focused field study) is how today we waste an aweful lot of food. They get it that nothing was wasted way back. Some how we always end up coming around to how animals are treated today and what we are putting into our food. It’s a great learning experience for kids and I’m glad to hear that the museum is going to be taking a traditional approach with the slaughtering. Yet another learning experience.

  • tonya May 5, 2010, 12:40 am

    You all may enjoy the perspective of a farm girl…I’m 28 & grew up on a small family dairy farm. As a child I knew exactly where my food came from. Butchering days were like family reunions. I remember scraping hogs when I was very young (probably before Kindergarten) & stamping the neat packages of meat w/ the cut. I also recall dispatching chickens myself when quite young (probably 8-10). I fished & cleaned my own fish & helped process the deer shot by other members of my family. Today many are 2+ generations removed from the farm. It’s important for kids to know where their food is coming from. It’s also important to recognize that 98% of US farms are FAMILY farms. Farms should not be vilified for innovating to meet the needs of the ever expanding world population.

    • Christina May 5, 2010, 4:07 pm

      Thanks for your perspective. I’ve heard similar percentages before, but I think it’s important to remember that some of those “family farms” are actually very big corporate farms (that happen to be controlled by one family), and that many others are feeder farms for CAFOs. Cows and other animals might start off being raised on so-called family farms, but most of the time they spend their final days in confinement and filth, and, in the case of cows, eating grain instead of the grass their stomachs were designed to digest.

      I am a huge fan and supporter of farmers, and I agree it’s a dangerous thing to cast whole groups of farmers as villains. But it’s a lot more complicated than simply “innovating to meet the needs of the ever expanding world population.” Change is not always good or necessary, especially if it puts animals, the environment and human health at risk. And there are lots of varying opinions on whether we indeed need industrial agriculture to feed the world. (And whether people should even be eating as much meat as they have been since the advent of industrial agriculture.)

      In any case, it’s all good fodder for discussion. With your upbringing (and the discussion over at the Get the Junk Out blog carnival), I’m curious: What do you do for a living now?

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