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We have a living-history museum nearby. One of those places with relocated old buildings and re-enactors who take you right back to the 19th century. During one visit, I was in the kitchen of a home churning butter with my daughter and chatting with another visitor, telling her we’d 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 in 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 most 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 8-year-old, and have for years. 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 most animals are killed for food?

In an era where kids are inundated with factory-farming propaganda from powerful groups like the dairy industry in schools and agribusiness lobbies at state fairs, our best defense is education. If we want to raise food-literate children, if we want them to think critically, to challenge the status quo — to make good choices when we can’t choose for them — we have a responsibility to tell the truth so others don’t co-opt them with fiction.

And how do we do that? For starters, by exposing kids to the kinds of farms and conditions we want to support. Take them to local sustainable farms and involve them in conversations with farmers at local markets. Show them where your meat, milk and eggs come from. Then keep talking. Since Tess was tiny, we’ve talked about the “happy cows” and “happy chickens” that provide our local milk and eggs. The “happy” thing seems trite, I know (really, how do we know they’re happy?), but it’s an effective shorthand for explaining that we get our food from animals that live outside and eat what they’re meant to eat (i.e., grass and bugs).

Of course this works pretty well with milk and eggs. Meat is trickier (since, um, the happiness ends), but even then I think kids are able to appreciate the difference between an animal that lived a good life and was killed humanely, and one that didn’t/wasn’t. When I wrote about this topic previously, a reader told how she teaches her young son where meat comes from: “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. … We’re teaching them compassion as well as food literacy.”

Picture books can be surprising allies. Some, like Ruby Roth’s “That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals,” address the issue directly. Roth advocates for vegetarianism (and, I think, does so without judgment), but the book’s strength is how it presents factory farming in an age-appropriate way. Even omnivorous kids get a takeaway.

Then there are books where agriculture themes are secondary, but still effective. One 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.” To this day, it’s a favorite refrain in our house.

And for older kids? Resources abound:

“My Friends at the Farm,” a video from Farm Sanctuary, is billed as the first video “to introduce the realities of factory farming to children as young as 8 years old in an age-appropriate way.” I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ll be getting a copy soon.

Michael Pollan has a young readers edition of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” (Click here for an excellent review from then 13-year-old Orren Fox.) And Eric Schlosser has a kids’ version of “Fast Food Nation” called “Chew on This.”

The groundbreaking movie Food Inc. (which I reviewed here) is generally recommended for teens and older, but I know people who’ve shown it to kids as young as 6. Even if your kids are pretty ag savvy, I think it’s a little wonky for that age, and we still haven’t shown it to Tess (though it’s just a matter of time). But only you know whether it’s right for your family. For help deciding, check out these  kid-centric reviews from Common Sense Media and Parent Previews. For high school students, there’s a companion discussion guide from the Center for Ecoliteracy.

In 2010, then 11-year-old Birke Baehr generated epic buzz with this 5-minute TEDx talk, in which he dissects everything that’s wrong with our food system, including factory farming.

“The Meatrix Trilogy” cartoons borrow from “The Matrix” to take on factory-farmed meat, eggs and dairy, and the fast-food industry. It’s animation with some serious ammunition. The Meatrix Interactive 360 is a companion graphic that lets kids roll over images and click for details. The site also includes presentation kits, handouts and other resources for learning more.

Then there’s the now-infamous Chipotle video. When it aired during the Grammys two weeks ago, I loved its back-to-basics farming message. But I questioned (on Spoonfed’s Facebook page) whether the chain should be so self-congratulatory when it’s selectively sustainable. Readers helped me see the bigger picture (thanks, guys), and indeed the commercial has sparked a lot of discussion about factory farming. And that’s a good thing. It’s also entirely kid-friendly. So here you go:

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? Any other resources to share?

This post, inspired by another piece I wrote two years ago, is part of Occupy Our Food Supply, a global day of action (today) where advocates on the ground and online are rallying to raise awareness of how industrial agribusiness has co-opted our food system. I’m a twitter abstainer (for now), but if you’re inclined to tweet this post (and thanks if you do), the event’s hashtags are: #F27 and #occupyourfoodsupply.

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