Stories linking cases of extreme child neglect to plant-based diets are peddling dangerous rhetoric, writes Jai Breitnauer.
When I read about the malnourished toddler in Sydney this week, who at 19 months was so severely starved she looked like a newborn baby, I was heartbroken and outraged. But I also felt something else – anger. Not directed toward the incompetence of the parents, but toward whoever wrote the headline and included the word ‘vegan’.
Let’s just make it clear right now: veganism is not child abuse. This child was not on a ‘strict vegan diet’ (a misnomer, as veganism is a lifestyle choice, the diet itself is ‘plant-based’.) This child was being starved. It doesn’t matter whether the modicum of nutrients that were permitted to enter this darling baby’s body were meat or plant based, the important fact is that she wasn’t getting enough. She was neglected, and that abuse should not be hijacked by the anti-vegan brigade.
This isn’t the first time this has happened. In February The Sun ran a story with the headline Fanatical vegan couple ‘nearly starved their baby to death’ by feeding him ‘milk’ formula made from potatoes. In October 2018, when Jennifer and Jeromie Clark were convicted of starving their child, Patheos.com ran the story with the splash Religious Vegan Parents Convicted in Starvation Death of Son.
An older example is Vegan Italian parents investigated for neglect after baby son found severely malnourished, from The Telegraph (London) 2015, and there are many more.
I’d argue that what all these stories have in common is not that that the families claimed to be vegan, but that they’re all fucking idiots. There is no reason at all why a plant-based diet should be a death sentence; but withholding food from your child and allowing them to starve over a protracted period of time, well that’s a death sentence regardless of the family’s ethical beliefs or dietary habits.
Why does veganism continue to be put under the microscope this way, and associated strongly with such extreme negativity? After all, I’ve never seen a headline that says, ‘family of omnivores starve child to death,’ yet the vast majority of cases of malnutrition in the western world come from families who eat a meat and two veg diet. The extreme fear and suspicion of veganism has resulted in this need to ‘other’ us, and that can be really quite damaging.
My own children, aged seven and 10, have been vegan for four years. One of them was vegetarian from birth. I have been some sort of vegetarian since I was nine years old, rotating between veganism, lacto and ovo vegetarianism, pescatarian and back to vegan. Our waistlines assure you there is no malnutrition going on here. And yet we constantly get questions about how we eat. “How do your kids get enough calcium?” “Are you worried about B12?” “Aren’t your boys just hungry?” After overhearing a conversation about protein and veganism by some well-meaning family members, my older child was so distressed he cried himself to sleep in my arms. “I don’t want to eat animals, mummy,” he told me. “But I want to grow big and strong like daddy.” What a horrid conundrum to be put in as a child – except that it’s not a conundrum at all. Because vegans get all the protein they need from plant-based sources, and humans do not need as much protein as the meat industry would like us to think.
Lots has been written about what humans were designed to eat, but in an interesting article in Medical News Today, the author suggests that it’s not really important what humans ate in the past, when we were evolving and adapting to our changing surroundings. We should be focusing on what we need to eat now, and science increasingly shows that vegan and vegetarian diets are healthier, as well as being better for the environment.
But I’m not here to try and persuade you to move over to a plant-based diet. At least not today, and not in this article. What I want is the association between veganism and child abuse to end. Let’s go back to the original story, from Sydney. If you can get over the use of the word veganism and read the details, you will see that actually whether the child’s diet contained animal products or not is totally irrelevant – she was underfed by anyone’s standards. At 19 months she was receiving just one feed of breast milk a day, a small bowl of oats, a piece of toast and a mouthful of fruit. Most children at that age are eating a small meal five or more times a day. My own kids were eating more than me by the time they reached their second birthday.
In addition, the baby had no birth certificate or medicare number, and had not been seen by a doctor since she left hospital. Neighbours of the family didn’t even know a baby was in the house, and many had never seen the mother. One of the little girl’s deficiencies, vitamin D, has been linked to a lack of sunlight rather than dietary issues. When she arrived at hospital age 19 months, she couldn’t speak, crawl, sit up, hold a bottle or play with toys. She was severely developmentally disadvantaged, and yet it took a seizure for her parents to seek medical help.
This has no relationship to veganism – this is about a family who deliberately kept a child hidden away from society, and failed to give her what she needed to thrive. Furthermore, there is strong evidence that the mother was suffering from severe depression that may have affected her executive functioning skills – her ability to make decisions that were best for her and her family – and the father appears to have divorced himself emotionally from any parenting or partnership responsibilities that related to the welfare of his wife and children. That’s his actual line of defence, by the way, that parenting the baby was his wife’s job, not his.
So instead of getting all up in arms about weirdo animal lovers who deliberately harm their children to save cows, why aren’t we asking genuine child protection questions, like, why didn’t healthcare services follow up on the family when they stopped coming to appointments? Why didn’t the authorities questions why a child born in a public hospital had no medicare number or birth certificate? Why isn’t there more support given to fathers to encourage them to be more involved in their child’s care, and to recognise the signs of post-natal depression in their partners? By simply dismissing this story as ‘crackpot veganism’, we are doing a disservice to all the other children out there who need an intervention – and we are letting the state get away with not providing the support and follow-ups families with newborns so desperately need.
Let’s move on from the vegan bashing, and start asking the questions that will lead to tangible, positive change in the child protection sector.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.