Can Our Choices Make a Difference?

MattChicago2016

Talk, as prepared, for Madison, WI, and Chicago, IL, June 2016.
-Matt Ball

Let’s start with a pop quiz. How many vegans does it take to change a lightbulb?

LightbulbLightbulbs aren’t vegan!

For some of us, the question, “Can our choices make a difference?” seems silly. Of course our choices make a difference! A lot of people, though, think that in a world of seven billion people, what is actually silly is to think that one person’s choices can make a difference.

A good friend of mine, Jason Gaverick Matheny, wrote a scholarly analysis, Expected Utility, Contributory Causation, and Vegetarianism, that was published in a peer reviewed journal. In that paper, he lays out calculations that indicate our choices supposedly do make a difference. 

However, I don’t know many people who choose what food to buy based on a utilitarian calculation of weighted probabilities and Bayes’ Theorem. For example, I stopped eating animals thirty years ago because I realized I couldn’t consider myself a good person if I was paying others to raise and butcher animals simply so I could enjoy a taste of flesh. Actually making a difference in the real world wasn’t a consideration.

This is a good example of my early days: I was concerned with being “right.”

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I wanted to “win an argument with a meat eater.” I wanted to ridicule meat eaters. I wasn’t focused on actually changing the world, actually reducing the number of animals suffering.

Contrary to my approach then, Peter Singer took this question seriously in his book Animal Liberation. He was sympathetic to the idea that one person, acting in isolation, may very well not make a difference.

I can see this now. Even if we are the strictest vegan, some of our economic activity eventually pays the salaries of non-vegetarians, allowing them to buy more meat. In the end, the only way our food choices could have absolutely minimal negative impact would be if we didn’t exist.

So let’s set non-existence as our baseline.

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Can we do better than that, in terms of making the world a better place?

Let me try to answer that by starting with some history.

When I stopped eating animals, I was simply angry.

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As I said, I wanted to fight with meat eaters – attack and mock them. I obsessed and worried about abstractions and words and principles. I argued about exploitation, oppression, liberation.

The single most important lesson I’ve learned since then is that the irreducible heart of what matters is suffering. Back then, although I was sure I knew everything, I really didn’t know anything about suffering. Since then, though, I’ve developed a chronic disease, and experienced times when I thought I was going to die, times when I wished I would die.

Back in the mid-1980s, I didn’t take suffering seriously. Now, however, knowing what suffering really is, and knowing how much there is in the world, all my previous concerns seem – well, to put it kindly, silly.

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Today, I realize that our individual day-to-day food choices matter very little compared to the impact we can potentially have with our example, our advocacy, and our donations.

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So let me summarize, really quickly, a few facts and statistics from the past 30 years that can help us make a real, meaningful difference in the real world.

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You’ve probably all seen this graph from Animal Charity Evaluators. I know you can’t see it clearly, but the take-away is that to a first approximation, every animal killed in the United States is a farm animal.

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Compare that to this second graph, which shows where animal-related charitable donations go. Now, farm animals are the tiny sliver in the bottom right. In short, when trying to make a difference for animals, we’re working with one hand tied behind our backs, because resources are in no way allocated proportionally.

Not surprisingly, we’ve not done the best job.

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Here we see the results of the Vegetarian Resource Group’s surveys of the last sixteen years (without error bars, which are huge). Although from within the vegan bubble, it can feel as though there are tons more vegans, the actual surveys of the actual population in the United States shows no clear growth in the percentage of the US population that is vegetarian. Or, to look at it on the appropriate scale:

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In terms of meat consumption, it is even worse.

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This graph shows per capita meat consumption in the US. While beef has declined, chicken consumption has more than doubled. Given how small birds are, this means many many more animals are dying every year, compared to when Peter Singer published Animal Liberation.

As an aside, I know we all have a much greater affinity for mammals than for birds.

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But not only are chickens being killed in vastly greater numbers than cows or pigs, they are suffering absolute horrible cruelty.

Here is one more piece of bad news.

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According to a number of surveys, including the most recent one by Faunalytics, the vast majority of people who go vegetarian or vegan eventually go back to eating animals. More than four out of every five individuals who go veg eventually quit!

It would be bad enough to realize that we’re throwing away more than 80% of advocacy efforts. But it is actually worse than that. Everyone who quits being veg becomes an antispokesperson against compassionate eating – a public (and often loud) example opposing taking any steps that help animals.

So with all that said, what do we know that might actually help us?

First is a graph from Ben Davidow.

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This shows the relative number of animals harmed by the standard American diet. And you can see that the vast, vast majority of those animals are birds.

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Looking at it a different way is this graph from Mark Middleton at AnimalVisuals, showing the number of deaths caused by producing a million calories of different food, including grains, vegetables, and fruits. Mark explicitly concludes, “Leaving chicken and eggs out of our diets will have the greatest effect on reducing the suffering and death caused by what we eat.”

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Now I don’t want to just focus on death in and of itself. I would much rather be a field mouse living free until killed by a combine harvesting soybeans, compared to a chicken whose entire life is utter agony.

And I don’t mean that as hyperbole.

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Harish Sethu of Counting Animals did an analysis of how many chickens actually suffer to death before making it to the slaughterhouse. These birds die of disease, or are killed because they aren’t growing quickly enough, or have their hearts just give out, or their legs break such that they can’t make it to water. Harish’s calculations show that so many chickens suffer to death that their number dwarfs all the animals killed for fur, in shelters, and in labs, combined. Again – this isn’t the number of chickens killed overall, just the number who suffer to death before even getting to slaughter.

The numbers are incredibly stark.

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Again, based on research by Harish, Joe Espinosa notes that the average American consumes about two dozen land animals a year. If one person decided to give up eating birds – just birds – they go from being responsible for the deaths of over two dozen land animals a year to fewer than one. Fewer than one!

However, the converse is also true. Anything that might possibly lead someone to start to replace red meat with chickens will lead to a lot more suffering and killing, as noted by Ginny Messina:

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So with all that said, let’s get to some good news!

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Previously, we saw a graph that showed the number of chickens being slaughtered going way up.

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But in recent years, this trend has reversed somewhat (upper right).

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The decline might not seem like a lot, but given the size of birds and the numbers we were starting with, a small decline translates to many fewer animals suffering – hundreds of millions fewer.

So how does this specifically inform our advocacy?

I would love to say that the decline in the number of land animals killed in the US has been driven by a rise in the number of vegetarians and vegans.

However, as various researchers have pointed out, the change has actually been driven by meat reducers – people who are eating more meat-free meals, but aren’t (yet) vegetarian.

Turning to Faunalytics’ study on recidivism, their data shows that people who went veg for health reasons are the ones who go back to eating meat.

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The single biggest difference in motivation between those who quit being vegetarian and those who stay vegetarian is: concern for animals (42% difference).

This is backed up by research by The Humane League Labs, which showed that concern for animals is what inspires lasting dietary change.

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So clearly, we need to keep animals at the center of our efforts to help animals!

Research has also told us more about how we can refine our message in such a way as to get the most useful change for animals in the real world.

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The Humane League Labs specifically pointed out that we should not focus on dairy when initially dealing with the general public. Not only because of the numbers, but because it is the last thing people think they can give up. Rather, we should focus on chickens, which people can give up and actually makes a significant difference in terms of the numbers of animals suffering. (Of course, this is absolutely not meant to dismiss or downplay the suffering of dairy cows and calves. Rather, this is simply a discussion of how best we can promote a message that will have the biggest possible impact in actually reducing suffering.)

This relates to research I was a part of in 2014 at the University of Arizona.

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One of the many interesting take-aways from those four studies was that each one of them found that the general public thinks veganism is impossible, and vegans are, to put it kindly, annoying. This obviously doesn’t matter if we only want to promote veganism regardless of the consequences. But if we actually want to make a difference and reduce the amount of suffering in the world, we should take note of this.

Similarly, many people quit being vegetarian because they found it too hard to live up to the demand for purity.

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Again, if we only care about the purity of those who call themselves vegan, then the fact that we’re driving people away is irrelevant. But if we actually want to reduce suffering, we should do everything possible to both embrace and encourage everyone…

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…instead of reinforcing people’s stereotypes and trying to build the smallest, angriest, most exclusive club in the world.

The upside is that there is a great deal opportunity out there.

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A number of surveys (including the University of Arizona study, quoted in the graphic above) have discovered a shocking willingness among the general population to reduce meat consumption.

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And if we are really going to help animals, rather than just police our club, we can reach these members of the general public with an honest, realistic message that actually has a profound impact for animals – reducing and eliminating chickens from our diet.

How can we best do this?

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I know this slide from the Humane League Labs is hard to read, but it shows that of the advocacy tools available to us, movies, conversations, websites, and online video have proven to be the most impactful.

 

Now I know this is a lot to take in in only a few minutes.

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But I find it very encouraging to realize we have so much information available to us, such that we know what positive, constructive steps we can take to help change the world for animals.

Two last thoughts. The first is my absolute favorite quote from Gene Baur.

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Even while building the world’s leading farm animal sanctuary, Gene was looking at what will be necessary to make sure that one day, as soon as possible, sanctuaries are no longer needed. We simply must go upstream and end the demand for animal products.

And finally a quick note as to why this matters.

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For us here, we can debate and argue, philosophize and condemn. We’re all relatively safe and well off, enjoying our sparring and our agreements, our discussion about who’s attacking whom on Facebook, how angry we are about the latest tweet, how delicious the new vegan product is.

On the other hand, it is a cliche, of course, to say that this is a matter of gravest consequences for animals.

As much as I would love to think otherwise, we currently can’t do everything. We do not have infinite time, or infinite resources. But we have to realize that when we choose to do one thing, we are choosing not to do another. We need to choose wisely; we are the animals’ voice. We are their hope.

We can each strive to make choices that have the greatest possible impact, that reduce the most suffering, regardless of labels and definitions, regardless of how it makes us look or feel, regardless of popularity. We can make a real difference. We can change the world! Thank you.

 

The Reality of “Vegetarian”

From a study of people who self-identify as “vegetarian,” as noted by our friends at Faunalytics:

In their study, the researchers found that only 3% of respondents [all of whom self-identify as “vegetarian”] reported consuming no animal protein whatsoever, which is in the range of many current estimates of the number of veg*ns in the U.S. Not surprisingly, the majority of self-identified vegetarians reported consuming dairy (93%) and/or eggs (65%). What might be surprising is that the study also found that more than a quarter of respondents (27%) reported “consumption of some type of red meat.” When they grouped together “meat, poultry, and seafood” they found that “almost half (48%) of self-identified vegetarians reported consumption of some food from this combined grouping.” The fact that about half of self-identified vegetarians are not actually vegetarian is important for advocates to keep in mind as we weigh the value of different surveys and try to identify trends.

Recidivism Part 3: Be Honest and Thorough about Nutrition

We are reprinting some of Ginny Messina’s insights from her research on veg recidivism. This week, we feature “Why Nutrition and Nutritionism Matter.” Thanks to Ginny for all her research and permission to reprint.

Eating healthy whole foods is important—and so is paying attention to individual nutrients. Lately, though, that’s become an unpopular thing to say. It’s what food activists like Michael Pollan refer to as “nutritionism.” That is, he and others say we should stop worrying so much about nutrients and just eat food (or “real” food as they refer to it). As celebrity nutritionist Dr. David Katz says “If you eat whole foods, the nutrients sort themselves out.”

But this is not exactly a science-based observation; it’s an opinion or at best a hunch or casual observation of the world. Pithy observations like this make for engaging writing and perky sound bites, but not always great advice. It’s one of the reasons I’m not on the food celebrity bandwagon. After all, even Dr. Katz has been called out for defending quackery and for sharing a perspective that is not always evidence-based.

To be fair, though, unlike Pollan whose understanding of nutrition is practically non-existent and whose advice is sometimes complete nonsense, Dr. Katz frequently brings a balanced perspective to hot button nutrition issues. And it’s probably not entirely wrong that people should worry more about eating whole, nutritious foods and less about micromanaging their diets.

Or at least this is probably not wrong in the world that Michael Pollan and Dr. Katz inhabit. It might be wrong in mine, though. Because the plant-based, whole-food diet that Katz, Pollan and others are talking about includes a bunch of foods that you and I don’t eat. It includes—in moderate amounts—cheese and eggs and chicken and fish. So they aren’t really thinking about how we can achieve optimal intakes of omega-3s, calcium, vitamin B12 and iron on the kind of diet that I promote. The idea that the nutrients will “sort themselves out” doesn’t always hold up for vegans.

The diets that have long protected the health of people in Asia and southern Europe are based on whole plant foods, but they aren’t vegan. A vegan diet omits foods that are traditional sources of nutrients in cultural plant-based diets. And, when people stop eating animal foods they need to know a few things about nutrients. For example, they need to know that it is important to include legumes—at least 3 servings—in vegan diets to get adequate amounts of all amino acids. They need to know which leafy greens provide calcium that is actually absorbed by the body. They need to know which type of vitamin B12 supplement is the best and how much is required.

We vegans are sort of pioneers when it comes to ethical eating because a world that honors justice for animals is very different from the world that has existed up to now. We don’t have the history, so we must be guided by the science. Does it make it look like being vegan is hard? Does it sound like nutritionism? It doesn’t matter. Our job is to ensure that vegan diets can be a viable long-term choice for anyone who wants to be vegan. That requires solid, evidence-based vegan nutrition information. Attention to nutrients is critical for preventing ex-vegans. The animals can’t afford for us to take risks with fuzzy, unsupported advice about how whole foods automatically meet nutrient needs.

Recidivism Part 2: Why Feeling “Normal” Matters

We are reprinting some of Ginny Messina’s insights from her research on veg recidivism. This week, we feature “Why Feeling ‘Normal’ Matters.” Thanks to Ginny for all her research and permission to reprint.

There are other important issues that we all know about—giving support, and especially sympathetic support when people are struggling with their veganism. Our community needs to provide a safe place for people to admit when they have made a mistake or a non-vegan choice. We need to honor effort and intention even when perfection (whatever that means) is elusive, to respect the challenges that some people face, and to let them proceed at their own pace.

But the last thing that I want to talk about actually covers a lot of ground in terms of encouraging a commitment to veganism. It’s the importance of making veganism feel “normal.”

A study from Cornell University titled “Who We Are and How We Eat: A Qualitative Study of Identities in Food Choice,” looked at this issue. The researchers found that many people (these were non-vegetarians) expressed a desire to view their food habits as “normal,” rather than “extreme.” This is important for our advocacy because surveys of ex-vegetarians found that many did not like feeling “conspicuous.”

We vegans eat (and live) in a way that is very different from the rest of the population. For some of us, it’s not a big deal. For those who value feeling normal, it might bring considerable discomfort regarding their vegan lifestyle. We can’t change the desire to be normal, but we can take steps to “normalize” veganism.

One way is to provide more vegan options that mimic usual eating patterns. The food industry has done a remarkable job of this and the choices are getting better and more diverse all of the time. Veggie cheeses and meats are much better today than they were ten years ago. It’s easier to find vegan options in mainstream eateries, too, and this is something that vegan activists should support.

I am frequently chastised for my stance on veggie meats—which is that it’s okay to eat them. Recently, a blog reader told me that they are “junk foods” that are “worse than meat” (as she had learned in an online course on plant-based nutrition).

I understand that avoiding these foods is an important part of some plant-based dietary philosophies. But nutrition isn’t a philosophy; it’s a science. I know of no evidence that a few servings of veggie meats per week will harm your health.

And it’s not just about convenience—although that is a big part of the benefit they bring to vegan diets. Just as importantly, these foods and others may make veganism more socially and psychologically comfortable for some people. They make it feel a little bit more like what some of us grew up with. They allow vegans to eat at restaurants with friends without having to ask the server to create something special for them—something that perhaps makes them feel conspicuous and uncomfortable.

We know that veganism isn’t about us. And a little discomfort on our part shouldn’t be a big deal given what the animals endure every day. But we also need to be realistic. Going vegan presents a huge challenge for many people. It’s not just about learning to like new foods and giving up old favorites. It’s about choosing a path that puts us out of step with much of society. Depending on who you are, where you live, and what your social circles are like, it can be alienating.

What we really want, of course, is for vegan to become the norm, not the fringe. But until that happens, making it look normal might be what is needed to help some people go and stay vegan.

Campaign Update: Changing the Way People View and Treat Farm Animals

By Nick Cooney

April 10, 2013

One of the key pillars of Farm Sanctuary’s mission is to change the way people view and treat farm animals. Another key pillar is to promote a compassionate vegan lifestyle.

Compassionate Communities was created to do both of these as efficiently as possible. Occasionally in this blog we share updates about what our volunteers are doing around the country to change hearts and change diets. This week, we share a few examples of the feedback we get from those whose hearts and diets have changed as a result of the Compassionate Communities Campaign.

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“I found [your
Something Better leaflet] on a cafeteria table and decided to become vegetarian after reading through it. I think that is a good way to raise awareness without being intrusive…I would like a stack of maybe 50 so I can pass it around our school campus.”
        – DongNi Zhang

 

“Its been almost 6 months since I first saw your video and I almost immediately became a vegetarian after that. It was the thing that really made me change my opinion on meat…It has been really easy for me to change into a meat-free diet and instead of missing eating meat, it kind of disgusts me now knowing whats behind a hamburger or a chicken cutlet.”
        – Anna Segarra

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“I am taking meat out of my diet. Thank you so much again, I love animals and I would hate for them to be slaughtered for the sake of my taste buds! I cannot wait until I get my meat-free meal guide. God bless you!”
       
– Abby Baca

 

“Im a 15 year old girl who never imagined to go vegetarian; however after seeing how horribly these animals are being treated I could never see myself going back.”
        – Louella Dent

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“Since I saw your video my life changed. I have been almost 4 months without meat and I have been feeling pretty good and confident about my decision. I thought it was going to be harder but so far it has been a lovely journey for me.”
        – Daniela De Los Rios

 

“This video is the reason I am now vegan! Thats all it takes to change minds and hearts to become vegan is to see truth of what’s on our plates … I have also joined some local animal rights and vegan groups here in Phoenix AZ. Every voice will help open eyes and save lives! Bless you and your work!”
   
    – Angel Cullen

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“I’m happy to tell you that I no longer eat meat since the first day I saw your video! If you have a farm nearby that might need some help with the animals I can help any weekend, and I will be very happy to do so.”
       
– Diana Pais

 

“I had heard that this type of behavior was common throughout the industry. But I just couldn’t believe that our fellow human beings could be that cruel. Obviously I was wrong…God forgive them. And I am going to try to become meat-free in my diet.”
        – Mike Onofrietti

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“This is going to change my life. I have been flirting with becoming a vegetarian for years but have hesitated … Thank you so much! PS, I am 82 years old but plan to live to be 102 because I am in excellent health.”
        – Eloise Peterson

 

“This is so sad, I am not eating meat anymore, because animals are just like humans, and if they’re suffering, then I’m not eating meat.”
        – Brandy-Latisha Lee

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“Great work by the way … I have now been a full vegan for 2 months!”
        – Aly MacNeill-Weir

 

 

Want to receive blog updates twice a month? Join the Compassionate Communities Campaign to get them delivered straight to your inbox.

The Summer Outreach Challenge is in full effect

By Nick Cooney

July 24, 2012

Kudos to the 60 volunteers who have signed up for the Summer Outreach Challenge and are each aiming to reach 1,000 people this summer with booklets or videos about farm animal cruelty and healthy plant-based eating:

Jessica Spain, Anne Kennedy, Audrey Fotouhi, Katie Moore, Robin Skov, Brandi Duffy, Barbera Thumann-Calderaro, Virginia Hanrahan, Desi Harpe, Dawn Nichols, Dennis Akpan, Don Blackowiak, Eileen Persichetti, Kamal Prasad, Emmaly Beck, Gail Mayer, Renee Gallaway, Gina Esposito, Greg Brumfield, Jolene Olson, Jen Manzari, Judi Megarity, Jonathan Hussain, Karen James, Kimberly Floyd, Laney Hopper, Laura Lyons, Shauna Saling, Malik McLean, Marilyn Nusbaum, Linda Marcovici, Maria Alexandre, Megan Della Fave, Meredith Hemphill, Michelle Brown, Milena Esherick, Myleme Montplaisir, Heather Stadther, Pam Driggs, Pamela Coleman, Patricia Massari, Patricia Haddock, Sarah, Piper Crussell, Ryan Wychowanec, Carla Wilson, Sarah Woodcock, Sherri Hendricks, Sherry Liu, Sarah Shaffer, Sue Bruzzese, Steve Small, Susan Earnest, Silvana Singer, Hilary, Tina Horowitz, Virigina Fitt, Wendy Cliggott, Victoria, Denise Anderson, and Hussein Mourtada.

On behalf of the animals at Farm Sanctuary, and farm animals across the country, thank you! June was our most successful month yet with more than 25,000 leaflets and starter guides distributed!

Challenge participants and other Compassionate Communities volunteers had this to say about their recent work for animals:

“Thank you so very much for sending me the Compassionate Choices leaflets and the Guide to Meat Free Meals. My family started handing them out immediately. My daughter took some to school to pass out to her classmates; I took them to work and passed them out to everybody, and gave one to my hairdresser as I have been discussing this with her for weeks.” –Brenda Lyon

“It was a beautiful day, and I think the turnout was probably their best ever!  I had about 170 people stop by my table…Cute story for Gene:  I had a copy of his book displayed, and one woman said she read it after it literally fell on her head at the library!  Her husband also read it, and it was the impetus for them going vegetarian.” –Susan Jones

“Just want to give you a status report for Central Valley Animal Liberation. We are well on our way to meeting the Summer Outreach Challenge…Grand total: 750 [leaflets distributed so far].” Jonathan Hussain

“My parents have always been indiscriminate carnivores. I used to think that I could simply lead by example, but when I realized that my dining/living habits weren’t really changing their hearts or minds, I sent them two very passionate emails. Yesterday, my dad emailed me back to say that my arguments were very compelling and because of them, he and my mom are going to phase meat out of their diet! Hooray! I’m looking forward to handing out leaflets and making starter kits available – hopefully we can reach even more people.” Meg York

 

Want to receive blog updates twice a month? Join the Compassionate Communities Campaign to get them delivered straight to your inbox.

CCC volunteers hit the streets

By Nick Cooney

April 17, 2012

Just one month has gone by since the Compassionate Communities Campaign was launched, and we could not be happier! Volunteers are hitting the streets to educate the public about the cruelties of factory farming and the benefits of vegan eating, leaving a trail of compassion in their wake.

Volunteer Erika Hirsch is distributing vegetarian literature every other week at a farmer’s market in San Luis Obispo, CA. She noted that “Many people stopped by and some wanted to talk about health, environment or animals. Some people just wanted to say ‘good job’ and other people inquired about how to make dietary changes.” For each person who reduces the amount of meat they eat, dozens of farm animals will be spared a lifetime of suffering.

Constance Li and other students at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ passed out vegetarian leaflets on campus along with free food samples. The group followed three rules that every animal advocate should take to heart:  “Smile, validate everyone’s opinions (if they feel like you listened to them, they will return the favor), and compliment people.”

Christina Perkins’ vegan social group in Maine is attracting both vegetarians and current meat-eaters. Christina notes, “All commented on how delicious the food was and the restaurant staff is now quite competent in cooking a vegan meal even on short notice. And just as important, they take pride in that. All in the midst of a not-so-veg-friendly blue collar mill town in Maine.”

Susan Earnest has been handing out leaflets about factory farming and vegetarian eating on her lunch break in Pittsburgh, PA. She’s even recruited some friends to help her create new vegetarians in the Steel City.

Compassionate Communities volunteers have distributed over 20,000 pieces of vegetarian literature in the past month. In doing so, they have created dozens of new vegetarians and spared thousands of farm animals a lifetime of misery on factory farms. Volunteers have also shared video of farm animal cruelty with thousands of people, started vegan social groups, and begun working on local veg dining guides.

Please make a commitment to get active for farm animals! Email us to order vegetarian literature or to get started with a Compassionate Communities program. The animals will thank you, and so will we!

 

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