Vegan Mama Marisa, USA

By: Annika

Interview & photos with Marisa Miller Wolfson, director & editor of Vegucated in Nov/Dec 2016 issue of Vegan Health & Fitness magazine!

Photos by Annika Lundkvist

As part of an ongoing interview series with vegan mothers and fathers around the globe, Annika Lundkvist chats with and photographs Marisa Miller Wolfson, director and editor of documentary film Vegucated. Originally from Evansville, Indiana (living within a one hour drive from 84 factory farms), Marisa now lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her family and is working on a cookbook for parents of vegan babies, toddlers and bigger kids.

Annika: I feel it is critical to support vegans who become parents and commit to raising that consciousness in younger generations. I have seen you write about this as well and know that you and your husband are passionate about this. What is your message for plant based, compassionate advocates who are thinking of becoming parents?

Marisa: The decision to have a family is a big one and while there certainly are environmental impacts that must not be taken lightly, I also find that for this movement to truly be mainstream, we have to clear what many consider to be the last hurdle—changing perceptions of veganism so that it seems healthy and doable for babies and children, which it certainly is. We won’t make that happen by just preaching to people; we will make that happen by showing people it’s possible.

Annika: Showing support to passionate and responsible vegan parents is, for me, an issue of showing basic respect for people’s biological rights and desires to have children, but also an issue that is critical in the vegan movement- showing that humans can be healthy vegans from conception. Currently there are just a handful of books out on vegan pregnancy and women’s health. This is a body of research that we hopefully will see tremendous growth in as for the vegan movement to be even more successful, legitimizing vegansim as a healthy and beneficial lifestyle through pregnancy and for all ages is absolutely essential. As someone who was vegan before and through pregnancy, what are your observations and thoughts on raising awareness and growing the body of knowledge on healthy vegan pregnancy and beyond?

Marisa: Well, I think the first step is to create a safe space within the vegan community to express one’s desire to birth one’s own children without fear of being shamed for it. I have so much respect for people who are abstaining from having children for environmental reasons, but I’ve also heard of people in animal organizations who have been so severely shamed for having children that they don’t even talk about their children or they have quit their jobs. I attended one animal protection conference while pregnant, and you wouldn’t believe the stink eye I got from a prominent DC activist. She even told my husband to be ashamed of himself. My bestie here in NYC has been the brunt of shaming anti-breeding comments on more than one occasion by the same activist. I’m waiting for the day that animal organizations recognize the importance of families in mainstreaming veganism and sponsor panels and presentations on the topic.

The attitudes are starting to change, though. In the 14 years that I’ve been vegan there are so many more vegans having children now than ever before. That is driving the expansion of the market for resources for vegan families from social media groups to vegan family cookbooks by Dreena Burton, Mayim Bialik, and Rich Roll and his wife Julie Piatt. Reed Mangels’ The Everything Vegan Pregnancy Book was my bible when I first became pregnant, and there are other vegan pregnancy books out there as well. Strangely, I haven’t found as many up-to-date how-to books on raising vegan babies and kids beyond the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Vegan Eating for Kids, which has good info and tips but not many recipes. So, currently, there isn’t one go-to book with all you need in it, though I’m hoping to help change that. More on that later.

Annika: Learning about the dairy industry as a new mother was jarring for me, particularly as I have a strong nursing relationship with my son. It blew my mind that it took me this many years to realize basic facts about the dairy industry and the severing of mother child bonds within the industry. I have learned that this is pretty common new mothers who become vegan. Why do you think there is such a strange societal weight placed on the importance of consuming dairy, even for young children, but also a widespread lack of awareness about what the animals must endure for the milk to be produced for our consumption?

Marisa: Partly I think it’s outdated science and stubborn old cultural ideas around the necessity of milk for protein and calcium that hearkens back to times before there was much variety in the diet or access to healthier foods. And partly it’s because the dairy industry has a very strong lobby and infiltrates governmental food and nutrition boards that make nutrition recommendations. They also provide materials touting the benefits of dairy to schools, including nutrition schools. Thankfully, groups have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose the fact that members of these government committees have strong ties to the dairy industry. Groups like the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food have also worked hard to help change the government guidelines so that they now include soy milk and less meat/dairy-specific language.

I think we can all look back and wonder how we never put two and two together when we considered how milk is obtained from cows. I honestly have no idea why we don’t think about it except that we like to think animals have good lives on farms and we trust that the government is looking out for farmed animals, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Even on smaller-scale family farms that aren’t “cruel” the calves are taken from their mothers within days or even hours. Then we eat the baby cows themselves. On top of that we put photos of our missing children on the milk cartons as if to say, “who cares about your babies; only our children matter.” It’s ludicrous when you really stop and think about it.

Annika: When did you become vegan & why?

Marisa: I became vegetarian in January of 2002 when I attended a screening of an old documentary that included factory farming footage, then I went vegan when I read a pamphlet I had gotten from the screening about all the reasons why a person would choose to be vegan. The health reasons were compelling, but the ethical and environmental reasons were devastating. I have never looked back. It was the best decision I ever made.

Annika: Were you vegan through pregnancy?

Marisa: Yes, through both!

Annika: What special changes did you make, nutrition wise, through pregnancy?

Marisa: I read The Everything Vegan Pregnancy Book by Reed Mangels cover to cover during my first pregnancy then dipped back in for quick refreshers with my second pregnancy. I upped my iron, protein and calcium in my diet and took calcium and iron supplements as well as the vegan prenatal and DHA supplement. I went a little nuts with my first pregnancy, tracking my daily intake of protein from time to time and making sure I got 75-80 grams per day, which is a lot, but with my second pregnancy I calmed down and was generally aware of my protein intake but didn’t drive myself nuts and certainly did not consume 80 grams every day. Both babies were the same percentiles at birth, so it seemed to make no difference whether I was vigilant or not.

Annika: Did motherhood have any influence on your vegan outlook?

Marisa: It made me feel more passionately vegan in some ways yet more tolerant in other ways. I am more passionate as an ethical vegan because now I know what it’s like to grow a baby inside me and birth the baby without anesthesia. Cows have about the same length of gestation and, of course, no anesthesia so they feel everything. Then they get the rush of hormones that Mother Nature gives to moms across species barriers to help bond mothers to their young, only to have their babies taken away from them. They can bellow for days. It happens over and over their entire lives. It’s seriously messed up. On the other hand, as a mom I can appreciate more than ever that life is messy, you can’t control everyone and everything, and there is no such thing as perfect. There’s a good chance my son had a slice of the dairy pizza instead of the specially ordered vegan pizza at school the other week, and I just had to let it go…after emailing the teacher to try to see what happened first so we can be sure it will never happen again. Ha. Which I’m sure it will in one form or another in one situation or another. I have to remember that it’s the awareness, compassion and values we instill in these kids that’s most important, not the few grams of animal product they may or may not have consumed when not under my supervision.

Annika: What are some of your children’s favorite foods?

Marisa: They both love pasta with “gween sauce” (basil-cilantro-almond pesto) with “sprinkle” (nutritional yeast-based parm). His favorite food from a restaurant would be the dumplings from Peacefood Café. His favorite snack is sesame sticks. Emmeline could eat endless blueberries and loves broccoli, cauliflower and carrots covered in a lemon tahini sauce.

Annika: Any specific challenges you face as a vegan mother & how you handle them:

Marisa: Right now the biggest challenge is dealing with a picky toddler, which is a challenge for many mothers, vegan or not. He gravitates towards carbs, so I have to get creative with the veggies and beans, sneaking them into sauces, baked goods, and even waffles. He doesn’t like food with “stuff” in it, so sometimes we have to blend it into oblivion until there are no recognizable veggies or beans in them. One of the best gifts we got is the Dinner Winner plate, which is a toddler plate that looks like a game. You have to eat small portions of foods to get to the next spot until you win a treat at the finish line. I can get him to eat anything if I put it on that plate, even if it’s just a tiny bite of something I know he doesn’t like. And the more tastes he has of something the more he will start to accept it…like peppers, for example. At first I would give him tiny shards of peppers, and I mean tiny shards. Now he will eat whole big chunks of them. I’ve gotten way more beans, fruits and veggies into him this way.

Later the social situations may prove trickier but so far that aspect has been easy while the picky eating has been the biggest challenge.

Annika: How do you navigate situations like your children attending peer’s birthday parties where there may be predominantly non vegan food?

Marisa: I always call/text the parent in advance and ask ahead of time what food will be served then bring a vegan version of it. It’s usually pizza and a cupcake. Some moms make a batch and put them in the freezer to have one on hand for each party. Yesterday at a party in his classroom I knew ahead of time that there would be an amazing cake there by a professional cake baker, so I made his cupcake extra special by putting a Peter Pan hat I made out of marzipan on it. He loves Peter Pan and he loved the cupcake. From now on I’m always going to have some marzipan on hand with some good quality food coloring to make something fun to put on his cupcake. It took maybe 15-20 minutes and made him feel special, which is what he is.

I can’t always prepare for everything, though, so sometimes he does encounter non-vegan food he wants to eat. As of recently he understands what vegan is and why we’re vegan so he doesn’t get upset when I tell him it’s not vegan so it’s not for us. He declares proudly that he’s vegan because he doesn’t want to hurt animals.

Annika: What are some of your favorite foods?

Marisa: A kale Caesar with tempeh bacon, a big plate of Ethiopian food on injera bread, avocado maki, chips and guacamole, African peanut stew, mac n cheese, the seitan piccata at Candle 79, I could go on. I do have a sweet tooth, and my dessert downfall is salted caramel anything. I’ve loved the ice cream flavor for years, but I made salted caramel cupcakes from the Chloe’s Vegan Desserts cookbook yesterday. They are dangerous.

Annika: Favorite meals to make for your family?

Marisa: My toddler is picky so it’s not always easy to please everyone (i.e. him), so I have to do a mix of things he should eat to push his boundaries and things I know he’ll eat. Of course pastas are always a win. Now we mostly make them with lentil or chickpea pasta (yes, that’s a thing) and do veggie-packed sauces, legume-packed sauces, or nut-based sauces, like a cashew-based alfredo or a ginger peanut sauce. Yesterday we had a lasagna with tofu ricotta.

Annika: As it was for many people, Vegucated was an important piece of media for me to watch during my transition to veganism. Do you have another documentary on your mind or lined up for production?

Marisa: Thank you! On my mind—yes. Lined up for production—no. I would love to make a film about vegan kids, but it takes so much time and hundreds of thousands of dollars to make a film, so it’s not realistic now with two young children. Crossing fingers it will be a possibility in the future.

Annika: You’re currently working on a vegan cookbook of recipes for babies, toddlers and kids in general. This is fantastic and also pioneering work! What inspired you to create this cookbook?

Marisa: I’ve been wanting to make a vegan kids documentary for a while now, but as I said before, it’s not an option for us right now. I figure I do have a time to make a cookbook, though, which I hope will be a logical companion book/resource for an eventual film. There are some great vegan family cookbooks out there, but there aren’t any that include baby food recipes or that give tips on how to make favorite dishes toddler-friendly. There also aren’t any that outline the nutritional recommendations for babies, toddlers and kids and how to meet them with vegan foods, so I approached vegan nutritionist Reed Mangels to write the health section. She’s on board! I’m super excited. I’m super excited also that I don’t have to create all the recipes for the book myself. Last summer when I was due with Emmeline, I hired Laura Delhauer to help out with the kids on evenings when my husband works late or travels. Turns out she’s an amazing cook, so we’ve turned our kitchen into a cookbook test kitchen. It’s really fun. We’re also reaching out to vegan parent friends for their best tried-and-true recipes for their kids so the book will be part original recipes by us and part compilation.

Annika: It’s exciting that you will be contributing to the body of literature for vegan parents and children. Hopefully we will see this niche of publishing grow even more in the coming years. What types of titles are you excited to see more of (for vegan kids and parents)?

Marisa: We will definitely see this niche grow. It has already grown so much beyond the realm of cookbooks. Vegan authors Maya Gottfried and Carlos Patino have written beautiful books on farmed animals that challenge preconceptions about them. Artist Ruby Roth has been a pioneer, creating picture books about veganism for children, and now she has a gorgeous cookbook geared towards getting kids into the kitchen and involved in making their own food.

I think we can use as many picture books, chapter books and young adult novels that strike the perfect balance of accessible, funny, informative, inspiring, and eye-opening. We could use more books featuring real or fictional vegan kids that help readers feel like part of an important community that’s changing the world. There also used to be a series called Super Sprowtz that helped kids want to eat veggies to be super strong and healthy. Sadly, they are out of print. We could use a new series that inspires kids to be powered by plants to make them like superheroes.

Finally, I say MORE baby food and toddler food books and why not also some light vegan parent fiction for a good giggle? We’re too tired to read anything very dense or intense.

Annika: What does an average day of meals and snacks look like for your children?

Marisa: Breakfast might be toasted bean/oat waffles that I made over the weekend and put in the freezer. Berries on the side. Mid-morning snack could be seaweed. Lunch is often a hummus or other bean spread wrap sliced into little wheels with cherry tomatoes and avocado on the side. Mid-afternoon snack could be banana with almond butter and raisins. Dinner may be Laura’s lovely lentils, a crusty bread, and apples on the side.

Annika: Your son’s school has a vegan entree available at lunch everyday which is wonderful. Was this a result of parents requesting this or a school led effort?

Marisa: Great question! I have no idea. I need to look into it once school starts again, but my suspicion is that it was parental demand. According to the chef, about 10% of students in the school are vegetarian or vegan. It’s a progressive school.

Annika: What advice would you gave for mothers who want to cook vegan for their children but mat be facing criticism or resistance from family members or community (i.e. schools, pediatricians etc)?

Marisa: I say inform yourself—read the books and websites, learn about the health benefits of plant-based living and the nutrients to watch out for and how your kids can obtain them. Grab one or two of Dreena Burton’s family cookbooks, and believe in what you are doing. You will be way more knowledgeable and informed than the naysayers.

Join a vegan parenting Facebook group or two and friend vegan parents, including me! Join or start a plant-powered parenting meetup to build community locally. Find support, offer support, and grow your little network. You will be a pioneer, but you won’t feel alone, and your kids will feel like they are part of something special too. This is how we will nudge society in a new direction together, one family at a time.

 

Visit Marisa online at

Vegucated.com

abc_2956

This interview is part of an ongoing interview series by Annika Lundkvist with vegan mothers and fathers around the globe.  For more interviews and information please visit this page: Interview Series: Vegan Pregnancy, Parenting & Kids.

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