Posted December 16, 2015
By CHARLOTTE MACKINNON
As recent studies continue to indicate the rise of alternative, plant-based food diets among young Americans today, it seems that the “millennial generation” has a real opportunity to implement a global shift away from the consumption of animal products in future generations.
Many students at the University of Miami are active participants in the plant-based food movement and demonstrate why the youths of today’s society are straying from the examples set by the diets of their parents and grandparents.
Americans born between 1980 and 2000, also called “millennials,” are increasingly demonstrating dietary habits that reject those of previous generations, which have been typically dense in animal products such as meat and dairy.
According to a study by the Hartmen Group, of the estimated 80 million millennials in America, 12 percent consider themselves “faithful vegetarians,” a number three times that of the Gen X’er’s 4 percent, and 12 times the Boomers’ 1 percent.
The Vegetarian Society defines a vegetarian as someone who lives on a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits, and does not eat meat, poultry, game or fish.
Less extreme vegetarians will still eat dairy products and eggs, while those who conform to veganism avoid animal products altogether.
In the past, the typical American diet has not usually been associated with the types of dietary restrictions consistent with vegetarianism and veganism, but that is beginning to change.
College students, especially, have voiced a higher demand for meatless options.
A Philadelphia Inquirer article featured information from Bon Appetite Management Company (which serves college and university accounts) stating that there was a 50 percent increase in vegetarian students, and the percentage of vegan students doubled from 2005 to 2010.
Many students at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, actively practice plant-based eating, and are able to take advantage of the growing amount of restaurants providing vegan alternatives.
Choices Café, an organic establishment specializing in 100 percent plant-based cuisine, opened its first location in Brickell four years ago; it now has four venues operating in the Miami area with a fifth on the way. The central mission of the business is to continue educating Americans about both the ethical and nutritional value of veganism, especially for Millennials.
“The younger generation seems to have a tendency to question everything, rather than simply believing what they are told, or following the path of how it has ‘always been’,” said Lori Zito, president of Choices Café, Inc. “The younger generation is asking questions … and the answers they are getting are leading them not only to a plant-based diet, but even to a plant-based lifestyle.”
So what questions are being asked and how are they influencing millennials to abandon the animal products consistent with the diets of the previous generations?
Many students who have become either vegan or vegetarian say that they feel as though young people are “more educated about where their food comes from” than their parents were at their age and knowledge about the American meat industry is a major motivational factor for them.
“In high school, I did a report on animal harvesting, which changed my perspective of the food industry and how meat got from the farm to the table,” said Kelly Henschel, 21, a junior at the University of Miami and an active vegan. “There are so many horror stories out there about animal processing; if more people just saw a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes, I think there would be a lot more vegans out there.”
It isn’t surprising that the youth of today are generally “more aware” of this type of information than were previous generations, considering that the majority of millennials grew up with the Internet as a resource.
In recent years, there have been an influx of documentaries that explore many of the controversial and frightening aspects of the American food industry, and promote the ideals of plant-based eating. They are extremely accessible to internet-users, streaming on popular websites such as Netflix.
Examples of these are “Vegucated,” “Forks Over Knives,” “Earthlings,” “Crazy Sexy Cancer” and “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret.” All were released in 2007 or later, and have given a lot of traction to the plant-based movement through their influence on viewers.
“Although I’m not totally vegan, I’ve had a vegan lifestyle for a few years now, an outlook that was influenced by watching a lot of documentaries about the meat industry and factory farming,” said Rachel Lyons, 21, a junior at UM. “I think maybe 100 years from now, everyone will be vegan and look back and be disgusted by the meat-eaters of past generations.”
Millennials have also grown up in an age where environmental concerns are becoming increasingly threatening; it’s no secret that the meat industry has many harmful implications for the environment, as factory farming requires massive amounts of land, food, energy and water.
In fact, according to PETA, 80 percent of all the agricultural land in the U.S. is used to raise animals for food and grow grain to feed them – and nearly half all the water used in the U.S. is for the same cause.
“[Veganism] is so much better for the environment,” said Henschel. “It takes way less water and natural resources to grow a field of vegetables than it does to raise animals for slaughter.”
Many young people have transitioned to plant-based diets by choice, but according to a report from the United Nations Environment Program, a global dietary shift away from animal products may be necessary in order to prevent mass starvation in the coming decades.
According to the report, the Earth’s population is expected to grow to 9.1 billion by 2050; with these staggering numbers, meat and dairy products that are consistent with the current Western diet simply cannot be sustained.
So if eliminating animal products is the way of the future, how much progress have we made so far? Although students are in agreement that vegan options have become more accessible in recent years, it’s generally still challenging, especially in social situations.
“I’m not always able to get good options,” said Lauren Hennelly, 19, a sophomore at UM and a vegan. “At my apartment, it’s easy because it’s stocked with vegan options, but when I’m out or in a rush there are very little options for me that aren’t highly processed or loaded with fat and sugar.”
Lyons, who hasn’t been able to commit to a fully vegan diet, also admits that diet limitations have prevented her from eating completely plant-based. “The biggest restriction is that [veganism] is difficult socially. It’s not like when I’m home, where I’m almost 100 percent vegan and buy vegan groceries.”
Part of the problem seems to be that the older generations haven’t completely embraced the plant-based movement that has resonated with their children. Both Henschel and Hennelly admit that their parents are either not supportive of their diets or don’t understand the reasoning behind them.
“My family is totally against being vegan,” said Henschel. “But they haven’t done as much research as I have on the subject. I feel like they’re a bit uninformed, unlike our generation and the younger population, who are generally more open to it.”
Many businesses are making it their mission to educate the uninformed, although changing the mindset typically associated with American consumers hasn’t been easy. Zito has been able to recall many instances where she has faced this challenge firsthand throughout her experience as the owner of a company selling plant-based food.
“Our guests often ask if we could just serve ‘some meat’ and that they would bring their friends if we did so. We’ve even had people walk out the door as soon as they realize our food is made from vegetables, not animals.”
Though the Millennial generation has begun to pave the way for a major change in American culture, there is still a long way to go before the plant-based diet becomes the societal norm. The younger generation has grown up with the tools and resources to educate themselves about their food, allowing them to make dietary choices that are steadily reshaping the landscape for plant-based lifestyles in the Western world.
Perhaps it is time for people of all generations to acknowledge their duty to spread awareness about this movement, so that at the very least, they can justify their lifestyle choices with educated reasons.
“We continue to educate and to stand by our values, with the hope that people will continue to vote with their fork for what they believe in,” said Zito. “We have big goals … we plan to open 100 Choices Café locations throughout the U.S. Miami is the city where our roots have taken hold, but we have a lot more growth to do on our journey to reduce suffering. And we will not give up. Our mission is too important to fail.”