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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.)

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