Nine-year-old Justice Beske feels so passionately about being vegan that he made a video called "Justice the Vegan Kid" to explain his dietary choices to his classmates.
A vegan since birth, Justice doesn't consume any animal products. However, he is quick to tell you that he eats well, ranking pad sei ew (hold the eggs and fish sauce) and vegan macaroni and "cheese" amongst his favorites.
When it comes to alternative diets, Justice and his family are in good company. Although it is difficult to determine the exact number of people who follow strict vegan diets, more people of all ages are re-examining their diets and limiting or omitting meat and other animal products.
While the motivations behind their food choices vary, Chicago-area vegans agree the city has numerous resources and options for families who choose to keep any type of animal products off their plates.
Justice's parents are long-time vegans, so it made sense to them to raise their son with the same diet.
"I became a vegetarian when I was 15. Then in 1995, my husband and I transitioned into being vegan for the same reasons that compelled us to be vegetarian. Once I understood the connection between the dairy industry and the egg industry, I felt I had to follow a vegan diet in order to be compassionate to all animals," Justice's mom, Marla Rose, says.
Others choose to follow a vegan diet for health reasons. Gabrielle Aguilar, an Evanston mother of three, lost her older sister to a heart attack at age 41 in 2009. That same year, her father was diagnosed with heart disease.
"As I started to look at my family's health and the history of our family, I noticed some commonalities of preventable disease, such as colon cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. I decided that I want to prevent these things from happening to myself and my children rather than try to deal with them once they show up," Aguilar says.
Now, the whole family follows modified diets.
"My eldest child is vegan, my other two sons are vegetarian, and my husband eats chicken and fish," says Aguilar. "For my 9- and 10-year-old sons, their desire to be vegan and vegetarian is more political because they love animals and it is more of an animal rights activism for them."
After she followed a plant-based diet for a year, Aguilar said her energy level changed. "I feel vibrant, alive and energized," she says. But eating a vegan diet doesn't necessarily mean you are healthy, she says. "My aim is to achieve a total healthy lifestyle and eating vegan is just one part of that. We focus on eating raw or live material to get the maximum nutritional benefits. Plus, we have lowered our sugar intake and increased our exercise."
She has even started her own plant-based catering company called The Rootsy Vegan (rootsyvegan.com) to introduce others to vegan cuisine.
Adults following a vegan diet are accustomed to dealing with questions or comments from others who don't understand their food choices. However, Rose has found that raising a vegan child is a different experience.
"One of the pervasive attitudes is that is it fine for you to be vegan but you shouldn't force that on your child. When you become a parent, you open things up to people commenting in a different way," she says.
Vegan families also have to deal with the reality of eating in a non-vegan world, particularly in social situations. Rose says Justice doesn't mind if he doesn't do the same things as everyone else. However, "we emphasize not what we don't get to do, but what we do get to do. Veganism is coming from a place of joy and abundance so we raise our kids with that mentality," Rose says.
Rose has found that other parents in her community are understanding of her family's dietary choices. For example, if her son is invited to a friend's birthday party, Rose contacts the parents ahead of time to let them know that Justice eats a vegan diet and arranges to bring a piece of cake for him. "I try to match it to the type of cake they are having to make it easy," she says.
Tips and Tricks
My family and I save all of the sleeves from the newspapers and use them to put dirty diapers in instead of using plastic bags. We always use reusable bags at the grocery store and no longer buy bottled water. I am also a recycle freak!! There isn't anything I can't reuse to make the perfect project for my daughter!
Jamie Volmut, Brookfield
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Similarly, Aguilar takes turns with another vegan family to provide vegan food for her son's basketball team parties. "Most people that we surround ourselves with respect our dietary choices. We don't judge others and we don't want others to feel uncomfortable around us. So we don't expect to go to a party and expect to be accommodated. We are happy to be included and I always provide our own vegan food options," says Aguilar.
Because they knew that there would be some challenges to raising a vegan child, Rose and her husband felt it was important to create a network of people who are also vegan. In 2004, they joined with a few other vegan families and created the Chicago Vegan Network. This group began with small meetings in people's homes. Activities now include monthly potluck meals, play dates, camping trips and an annual excursion to an animal sanctuary in Michigan.
"We discuss things about being vegan in a non-vegan world that are important to know, including finding doctors that are open-minded, advice about vitamins, easy meals and negotiating the social aspect of choosing a vegan lifestyle," says Rose.
Both Rose and Aguilar agree that Chicago is a great place to be a vegan.
"Ten years ago, most people didn't know what the word 'vegan' meant. Now, this diet is a part of the evolution of people becoming healthier and wanting to live longer lives," says Aguilar.
As a result, Rose adds, most restaurants and stores now easily accommodate vegans.
The one thing Justice wants people to know: "Eating vegan is not much different and you shouldn't make fun of me."
Caitlin Murray Giles is a mother of three living in Chicago.
Caitlin Murray Giles is a full-time mother of three and part-time freelance writer living in Wicker Park.
See more of Caitlin's stories here.