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Towards an Animal Standpoint:
Vegan Education and the Epistemology of Ignorance

by Richard Kahn, University of North Dakota

excerpt - Vegans can just as easily encounter micoaggressions and microinequities in the school as they can in the larger society.5 While some schools have moved to try to incorporate a consistent vegetarian (and sometimes vegan) offering on the menu, the overall reality is that vegans are still treated like second-class citizens in most school cafeterias. Even when there is food provided for them to eat, the school experience is structured so as to reduce veganism to a personal “special dietary requirement” and not a collective political standpoint from which to mount a transformative critique of society. When exhaustive ingredient lists are not made openly available, or there is not clear transparency as to the manner in which the available food has been cooked, and staff are not properly educated so as to be able to easily answer questions about the food or its preparation, this constitutes a form of microaggression by school administrations against vegans (and by extension — all who eat at the school). It is crucial to remember, however, that behind these dietary microaggressions lies a macroaggressive institutional logic, not just the careless or uninformed aptitudes of individual administrators.

Consider the recent story of Dave Warwak, a 5th through 8th grade tenured art teacher in the Chicago-area Fox River Grove Middle School, who had previously exhibited at Northern Illinois University but who was suspended and then fired by his public school for teaching art from the animal standpoint.6 In 2006, Warwak became a vegan and decided to respond to evidence of animal cruelty by students at the school by developing (and gaining approval for) a collective art lesson in which a number of students and teachers created and cared for their own companion animal made out of commercially-available marshmallow “Peeps” chick-shaped candy. As with school exercises in which students care for “baby” eggs, people at the school personalized their Peeps, spoke to them, and treated them as if they were subjects of a life that were deserving of protection. At the end of the lesson, however, Warwak surprised everyone by collecting the marshmallow chicks for a diorama school art exhibit he then created in which the Peeps candies were represented as locked behind zoo cages, hung on the wall as trophy game heads, squashed as road kill, boiled and fried in pots and pans, and enclosed between slices of bread as sandwiches. According to a Sept. 12, 2007 Chicago Tribune editorial, this resulted in a rebuke from the school’s principal that Warwak was trying to “influence students against the school lunch program” and he was warned to stick to the curriculum. In response, Warwak replied that part of teaching art to students is to get them to think about life and to have them connect their creativity up to the social issues that they care very deeply about. He then turned his sights on asking for the removal of the National Dairy Council’s “Got Milk?” and other promotional posters which adorned the lunch room walls, and when the school’s cafeteria manager refused to take them down, Warwak and his students posted their own vegan posters satirizing the issue. He also began a more public campaign to raise consciousness about the quality of school lunches being fed at the school, which resulted in his dismissal.

While one might question Warwak’s collegiality, it also seems clear upon studying his case that his firing resulted not due to his pedagogical style, but rather because of his unwillingness to relent from using the art curriculum to explore his own school as a location in which to house the animal standpoint. By doing so, he quickly found himself immersed in a hot bed of political issues related to the existence of what could be termed the “school cafeteriaindustrial complex” that lay just below the epistemological surface of the school’s day-to-day code of normalcy. For instance, we might ask (as he did): Why were the Dairy Council posters in the school? What was the school’s food quality? What’s wrong with influencing students against the school lunch program if there is a sound educational point to be made in doing so?

Not only at Fox River Grove Middle School but also in thousands of schools across the country, corporate agribusiness has run amok in the attempt to utilize public education as a place to establish the naturalization of commercial meat and dairy as lifelong eating habits, to generate increased sales, to subsidize the food industry against decreased producer prices, as well as to funnel below-health standards food not fit for public sale. Warwak was correct to demand the riddance of the Dairy Council’s posters as they had in fact already been targeted for removal from approximately 105,000 public schools by the Federal Trade Commission. In May, 2007, the Commission ruled that the advertisements’ message on behalf of the dairy industry’s “Milk Your Diet” campaign — that claimed that the regular consumption of milk promotes healthy weight loss — was scientifically misleading and false.7 A story on the matter in Alternet captures the corporate duplicity behind this overt operation to infuse milk propaganda in schools:

The Milk Your Diet campaign (also called BodyByMilk; Think About Your Drink; Why Milk?; 24oz/24hours; 3-A-Day; and Got Milk? as in — one of these slogans has got to work!)...shipped truck-size posters of 'stache-wearing David Beckham, Carrie Underwood and New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez to 45,000 public middle and high schools and 60,000 public elementary schools last fall and conducted an online auction where students could use milk UPC codes as currency. ("It's an amazing experience," say the web promos, which were still up in May. "Did we mention you have a chance to win an iPod? And a Fender guitar? And cool clothes from Adidas and Baby Phat? All you have to do is drink milk to get it. Any size. Any flavor.") The campaign offered $1,000 America's Healthiest Student Bodies Awards to schools with the "most active" students and saluted them with what? Got Milk recognitions (Rosenberg, 2007).

Schools across the country have utilized dairy industry materials in this fashion because it is tacitly demanded by the USDA’s National School Lunch Program, the primary governmental vehicle through which food that is in over-supply is promoted and national prices thereby subsidized. In this case, schools are only reimbursed for their food expenses by the program unless they promote items like milk, which it has deemed a nutritional good. It should be pointed out that this is the same National School Lunch Program that was slammed by a March, 2008 exposé from the Wall Street Journal, which uncovered that: In reports dating back to 2003, the USDA Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office cited the USDA's lunch-program administrators and inspectors for weak food-safety standards, poor safeguards against bacterial contamination, and choosing lunch-program vendors with known food-safety violations. Auditors singled out problems with controls over E. coli and salmonella contamination (Williamson, 2008).

Worse still, the above phrase “known food-safety violations” is something of a euphemism. For a prime beef vendor for the National School Lunch Program has been the meat packing company Westland/Hallmark which, via undercover footage shot by the Humane Society of the United States, was revealed to be regularly slaughtering “downer” cows (i.e., mortally sick animals that have also been linked to Mad Cow and other fatal diseases in humans) for popular consumption. Though having repeatedly denied any illegal wrongdoing for years, the ultimate revelation of Westland/Hallmark’s practices in turn led to the nation’s largest ever recall of beef (Associated Press, 2008). Unfortunately, it was suspected that the large majority of the meat from Westland/Hallmark had already been eaten — much of it by school children. Dave Warwak’s art program therefore sought to provide a form of epistemological rupture of the educational status quo in order to call attention to the role being played by this sort of food in his own school. In so doing, however, he threatened to parade the fact that the dietary norms constructed on behalf of those attending public schools (as well as in the larger society) are generally set in place by an emperor without clothes.

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