Discover why vegan activist Laura Chepner is on the campaign to ‘veducate’ schools on inclusivity when it comes to what’s on pupil’s plates and on their curriculum.
So Laura, at what point in your life did you choose to lead a vegan lifestyle?
At the age of 10, my grandma offered me a tongue sandwich and after a bit of questioning as to why a sandwich would have such an unusual name, I could not imagine eating animals ever again.
Fast forward 20 years and as I was weaning my daughter from a mix of breast and cow’s milk onto solids, I began to research the optimum vegetarian diet for a child and watched a YouTube video by Jewish vegan activist Gary Yourofsky to find out more. He spoke of the herbivorous physiology of humans and the damage animal agriculture is doing to our planet. He opened my eyes to the barbaric nature of the dairy and egg industries which are fundamentally based on separating newborns from their mothers. Now that I was a mother, I was particularly struck by my hypocrisy of feeding cow’s milk to my daughter which nature had intended for their now deprived calves. I knew that I was vegan before he finished his speech and it has been truly liberating!
Tell us about your career move from primary education to vegan advocacy.
I really enjoyed being a primary school teacher and special educational needs coordinator – I was dedicated and found the work incredibly rewarding. The problem came when I realised that school life often clashed with my vegan ethics. The nursery rhymes were all about fishing, chopping off the tails of blind mice and old McDonald with his make-believe farm, and the stories, topics, and trips were all about the circus, zoo, and aquarium.
In many subjects, the omnivorous food diet was promoted and celebrated. For generations, this unconscious bias towards animal use and abuse has been and continues to be, projected onto our children daily, so much so that it has inevitably led to an adult population who struggle to even contemplate veganism as a genuine concept. I had to do something to balance the bias seeing the numbers of vegan children in mainstream education growing considerably.
Another catalyst was the fact that my daughter was refused a vegan lunch on her first day at school. So I left teaching and started Primary Education, a consultancy service that parents can call upon if they believe their vegan child is being excluded at school. I remember the Every Child Matters document being launched in 2003 and thinking how incredible it was that schools were expected to go above and beyond to meet each individual’s needs. Yet in 2021, vegan children are being expected to learn about topics that will cause them distress and confusion with zero food provisions in place.
The main work that underpins my advocacy is hosting staff training sessions across the UK where I show educators the world through a vegan child’s eyes and that it is possible to teach a humane education that is both inclusive and beneficial for all. I have big plans to create many more exciting resources that schools will be able to access and am in the process of creating a Continuing Professional Development (CPD) accredited, vegan-inclusive online course that schools can use for staff training. I have also written and published a guidebook, An Educator’s Guide for Vegan-Inclusive Teaching. In addition, I help school caterers to create vegan menus. My first victory was implementing the first rolling vegan menu in the borough of Bury where we live.
I am also really proud to have joined forces with Tina Newman, author of the children’s book Vivi the Supervegan to create a KS1 Teaching and Learning resource pack that will encourage teachers to introduce an awesome vegan character into their classrooms.
What has been the driving force behind your desire to spread awareness at school age?
It saddens me that vegan children are often unable to access free school meals and I believe it should be mandatory to have at least one vegan option on all menus from nursery up to higher education. I was recently invited to speak at the All-Party Parliamentary Group on School Food where I stated there should be better guidance for headteachers.
Veganism is a protected, philosophical belief more akin to Buddhism and Humanism than it is with Atkins or Paleo. When a parent makes a request for vegan food most headteachers refuse due to the lack of understanding and because there is no specific guidance that states they must provide vegan options. Parents are left with no choice but to concede and make a packed lunch at their own expense or contact me.
School by school, I act as an intermediary but if I could get the law changed this would save a lot of individual angst and victimisation. It would be a recognition that veganism as a movement is growing exponentially and vegan children should be respected and catered for equally. I’ll pester MPs and ministers until a review on school food is made.
How does veganism tally with the Jewish faith?
An astonishing 73 Rabbis from different denominations wrote an open letter in 2017 encouraging all Jews to become vegan. Writing under the auspices of Jewish Veg, they said that doing so would be: “an expression of our shared Jewish values of compassion for animals, protection of the environment, and concern for our physical and spiritual wellbeing.”
There is a fantastic documentary on Amazon Prime called A Prayer for Compassion which I sent, along with some more information, to my own Rabbi, Rabbi Robyn Ashworth-Steen who has since become vegan herself!
Israeli vegans now say they make up 5% of the country’s population, a higher percentage than anywhere else in the world. As far as I am concerned (and this was echoed in a 2018 Guardian article titled There is No Kosher Meat: The Israelis Full of Zeal for Going Vegan), Adam and Eve were vegan. Perhaps the forbidden fruit was not an apple after all.
For those who may be thinking of making the switch, do you have any tips for an easy transition?
It took me just under a year to replace every make-up, clothing, and cleaning product in the house with a cruelty-free alternative. I found the transition exhilarating – I loved searching out new brands and trying products for the first time. Building a vegan network online and at vegan markets and fairs were fantastic too; we all support and lift each other.
It has never been easier to shop for vegan food, especially with most restaurants now adding vegan options and almost one-in-four food products launched in the UK in 2019 labeled vegan. With initiatives like Challenge 22 and Veganuary, there is so much support out there and I can’t recommend them enough. My biggest piece of advice is simply to move at your own pace and don’t beat yourself up if you accidentally buy a product that contains animal ingredients – we all make mistakes.
I encourage all readers to do some research, perhaps watch the video that changed my life, The Best Speech You Will Ever Hear, and begin to question whether or not taste, tradition, or convenience is justification enough for taking the life of a sentient being who doesn’t want to die. As I see it, there is no real counter-argument to veganism – showing compassion for the animals with whom we share this planet is better for our health, spirituality, and environment. Veganism is a social justice movement!