I first learned of Sarina Farb while reading her open letter in response to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has been speaking out about the importance of the environment. Sarina’s beautifully and academically written words encouraging the newly-elected US congresswoman to embrace veganism led me to want to hear more of what Sarina has to say. So, I reached out to Sarina and was thrilled that she was willing to be interviewed. I think you, too, will find that she is an amazing woman with smart, forward-thinking ideas.
What was it like growing up in a vegan family? What challenges, if any, did you face? Did you find that other children and their families were understanding and accommodating?
Growing up vegan was an amazing experience and has shaped my life in an incredible way. My biggest challenges were probably during my 6th grade year when I was attending a Montessori school. The school was largely wonderful and focused on peace and kindness, except for the fact that they completely ignored the use/exploitation of animals. The food the school served was very meat heavy, they took kids out to their lake for an annual fishing trip, and made sure to bring us to the zoo and a steak house when we took a class trip to Chicago.
Lunches were easy to deal with because I just brought my own, and whenever we had special events of birthday parties my parents just sent me with special vegan treats (like soy ice cream or vegan cupcakes). However, other activities like the zoo and steak house dinner was not optional. My parents and I both tried to present alternative activities to the school that were more inclusive and compassionate, but my teacher wasn’t very interested in adjusting things. In one case, she even tried to force me clean up/wash the meat and dairy filled lunch trays (we rotated through classroom chores and cleaning up after lunch was one particular chore) even though I brought my own lunch and offered to do a different classroom chore instead. I was constantly struggling to speak up for my values in that classroom.
How old were you when you had your first conversation with your parents about food? What was discussed? And how did they bring up veganism to you? What reason(s) was/were given for being vegan? What was your takeaway message from this conversation?
I honestly don’t remember the first time I talked about veganism with my parents because it was always a constant part of our life. I do remember being about four years old and having my mom ask me questions like “why don’t we eat animals?” and me answering “because animals are my friends, and I don’t eat my friends!” When my little sister was breast feeding, my mom would talk about how cow’s milk was for baby cows, just like her milk was for us, and that mama cows loved their babies just like she loved us. As a small child, veganism was just clearly the most logical thing in the world to me.
What was your first encounter like regarding food in school? What was your reaction to seeing classmates and teachers eating animal products around you?
Some of my earliest memories of seeing peers eat meat and dairy, were actually related to being a competitive gymnast. When my gym had chili fundraisers for us, or at competitions where we all received goodie bags that often had non-vegan treats. Activism was ingrained in my being from a very early age, and my response to seeing my peers eating non-vegan candy was to explain to them (in graphic detail of course) what exactly gelatin was and how it was made. I could never wrap my head around the fact that they would say “so?” and continue to pop the candy in their mouth.
Similarly, in grade school, I would bring vegan flyers with me and share them with my classmate during lunch time when they were downing a burger or hot dog. (Not necessarily tactics that I recommend today!) Some students went vegetarian after I talked to them about where meat came from, and others became very upset with me. Most of my challenges were more due to my speaking out about veganism, than simply because I was vegan.
Did you ever question your parents’ ideas regarding food and animals? What eventually led you to the decision to stay vegan once leaving your childhood home?
I’ve never questioned veganism! My parents actually gave me my own “food choices” when I was 7 years old. They decided that once I could read and understand food labels, that they would let me choose what to eat when I was on my own away from our family home (our home was always 100% vegan). Part of the arrangement was that I had to learn a stack of flash cards that had common ingredients on them (things like casein, whey, milk powder etc.) and be able to explain what/how these ingredients were made, and why our family didn’t eat them. Getting my own food choices never once made me question veganism or our diet, but rather it helped me to take ownership of my vegan values. When peers would ask why I wasn’t allowed to eat something non-vegan, I would say, “I can eat those things, but I CHOOSE not to!” From that time on, living vegan was my choice, and I have never wavered.
What do you think is the best way to teach children about compassionate eating and the horrors of the meat/dairy industry? What age do you recommend this conversation take place? What resources, if any, do you recommend for this lesson?
I think just having honest open conversations with children from a very early age is the best way to teach children about compassion. Most children are naturally kind towards animals and don’t want to hurt them, so simply connecting the dots for them is enough.
There are so many amazing children’s books and resources today to help children understand things like how an animal gets turned into a burger. I highly recommend Ruby Roth’s books including ‘Vegan is Love’, for gently making these connections for children. I would also recommend taking children to meet rescued farm animals and sanctuaries so they can make personal connections with our fellow earthlings and hear their stories of where they came from and how they were rescued.
I don’t think that traumatizing young children with graphic footage is generally a good idea, because it can be very scarring, and if repeated too much, desensitize them to violence. I find stories and real relationships with animals to be way more gentle and powerful for children.
How do you respond to those people who question whether or not it is healthy for children to be raised as vegan?
First, I point them to the position paper from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that says it’s healthful and beneficial to be vegan at any stage in life, and then I tell them that I did competitive gymnastics for seven years and I was one of the only children at my level to never have broken a bone! I also tell them that I ran cross country for two years in college, and completed a half marathon a year ago as well.
When and why did you get into animal activism?
I’ve been involved in activism nearly as long as I’ve been vegan! My mother made vegan activism a frequent family activity, and would bring my sister and I to help her leaflet on local college campuses, and events where she was tabling with vegan food samples and nutrition information. This was very inspiring and empowering for me to feel like I could help change the world.
I’ve been speaking up on my own to friends and peers for as long as I can remember as well. For me, it always seemed obvious, like who would actually want to eat meat and dairy once they understand that it comes from confining and killing animals? I honestly just couldn’t understand how my peers were okay with eating animal flesh when they claimed to love their cats and dogs, and I naively thought that if they just learned the truth, they would go vegan. This is what drove me to bring vegan flyers to school, and to tell friends how gelatin was made.
What animal activists do you admire most and why?
My mother is one of my biggest inspirations. She has been speaking truth to power, and standing up for justice unapologetically for the last 20 years even in the face of harsh pushback from her local community here in the Midwest.
I also really admire Jay Dinshah, Donald Watson, Leslie Cross, and Eva Batt who were visionaries and the early pioneers and founders of the vegan movement. Their writings and essays are brilliant and so ahead of their time.
Can you talk a little about the connection between carbon emissions and the vegan movement?
While my veganism is fundamentally driven by ethics, I find it very telling and powerful that a diet based on nonviolence also happens to be one of the most powerful tools for preventing chronic disease and stopping greenhouse gas emissions.
I believe the evidence behind animal agriculture and greenhouse gas emissions/resource depletion is so strong, that every environmentalist has a moral imperative to adopt a vegan diet simply to combat climate change if for no other reason. Animal agriculture is the leading driver of species extinction, ocean dead zones, deforestation, and methane emissions, which have about 80 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.
Every environmentalist should be taking the impact of animal agriculture seriously if they really care about science and what the data says. Likewise, if vegans care about having a livable planet and future for all life, we should be speaking up about the environmental impact of animal agriculture whenever we can.
What do you think the vegan movement is doing right?
Taking to social media! There are so many more opportunities and ways to share the vegan message today, and I love all the incredible films, mentor programs, and online resources available to people to learn about veganism and vegan diets.
How can the vegan movement improve? What advice do you have in terms of effectiveness?
Ahhh now we get to the deep questions haha. I have lots of thoughts on this one, but I will try to keep it brief. First and foremost, I think the vegan movement needs to move away from any support/connection/promotion of welfare reform, and so called “humane” standards. Talking about the problems of factory farming and working for bigger cages is not what veganism is about.
Veganism is fundamentally about not harming/exploiting others, and even if factory farming didn’t exist it would still be wrong to eat animals. Here in the Midwest I find that the discourse against factory farming is actually undermining veganism by encouraging the spread of small local “humane” farms where my peers have gone from being vegetarians in some cases, to “getting more in touch with their food” and now talking about “enjoying” killing animals and being part of the circle of life. This is deeply disturbing to me.
I also think the vegan movement needs to stop undermining other justice causes and using things like the exploitation of women to “sell veganism”. I would also like to see more of a focus on grassroots activism and those who are making incredible changes in their local communities, rather than giving all our funding and support to the large corporate animal charities.
Where do you see the future of the vegan movement?
The future of the vegan movement is with the millennials and the youth of today! I see a vegan future coming in the next 50 years, either because we make it happen, or out of necessity due to environmental collapse and resource depletion.
Have you noticed a change in people’s response to veganism over the years?
Definitely. Like I mentioned above, talking about factory farming and the treatment of animals used to work really well as a way to encourage people to go vegan, but today I find that the anti-factory farming focus has led to the growth of more local “humane” farms and people getting more involved in killing animals or just wanting to buy “better” meat and dairy rather than going vegan.
On the flip side, some people are much more open and curious about veganism today than they ever were in the past! I’m continually surprised by how many people I meet, who tell me they have heard about the health benefits of a plant-based diet from the news or on social media already.
You have a scientific background in both your education as well as your current job. What, if any, connection is there between science and veganism?
There are so many connections between science and veganism! I find the scientific body of literature out there on diet/health and the environment both provide strong support for living vegan.
As a scientist and someone who was raised vegan, I am passionate about critical thinking. Veganism has been very helpful in teaching me how to look past the mainstream propaganda and majority opinion on topics such as nutrition, and genetic modification of food crops, to see what the science actually says about both of these.
We can also use science to look at how amazing and intelligent animals are, which shapes our understanding of how wrong it is to hurt our fellow animals.
Many people feel that traveling makes being vegan difficult. How do you respond to such allegations?
I’ve traveled to South Africa, Haiti, and Taiwan, and managed to stay vegan in all those places! If you set your mind to it, and care enough about something, you can make it happen. Travel is no excuse to support the exploitation of animals.
In your experience where is the most vegan-friendly city that you like to visit? Do you have a favorite vegan restaurant?
Here in the US, New York City is my go to vegan city. I love the Blossom/Blossom Du Jour restaurants there! I also have to mention that Taipei, Taiwan is an INCREDIBLY vegan friendly place! There are so many vegetarian restaurants due to the culture and large Buddhist population, and many of those restaurants are nearly vegan as well, since cheese is not a large part of their diet.
Have you ever considered running for public office? Why or why not?
I’ve certainly thought about it! I love public speaking and competed in policy debate all throughout high school. I was also pretty involved in local government when I was younger, and spoke at numerous city and county commission meetings regarding local policies and development projects. Right now my journey has taken me elsewhere, but the future is still to be decided.
How can people find you online?
YouTube is my primary platform right now! https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCu_rvBwaEZLZPQH1XsuyRhw
About the Author: Sarina is a life-long vegan and second generation activist dedicated to making the world a better place. She speaks and writes about growing up vegan and dealing with “pushback”. Sarina previously worked with Tribe of Heart as the International Liaison, helping to make the award-winning animal films The Witness and Peaceable Kingdom: The journey Home understandable and accessible to people in as many cultures as possible. While with Tribe of Heart, she helped to launch the Global Tribal Cinema, a free, multi-lingual online video viewing platform. Sarina also founded AACT, a vegan group at Grinnell College, where she earned degrees in biochemistry and policy studies. Sarina currently resides in Kansas City where she teaches high school chemistry, working hard to bring ethics, holism, and true critically thinking into the science curricula.