International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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6th European Vegetarian Congress
Bussolengo, Italy, September 21 - 26, 1997

A Correct Vegetarian Diet During the First Years of Life
Nicole Tareha

Graduate in educational sciences in Australia

I'd like to talk about our school and possibilities for education. It's a pleasure to be with fellow vegetarians and people working for animal rights and, above all, very inspiring to see so many volunteers working for the transformation of our planet.

Our school is run by the women's department; we have about 12 schools in Europe and over 100 in the world. Our school follows a lacto-vegetarian diet and we have children coming from 7 months up to 6 years, about 30 in all. The majority of the children come from non-vegetarian families, but we are getting increasing requests from families who want to raise their children on a vegetarian diet. There are several children who have allergies, for example, to milk, so we adjust their diets to their needs. Our main aim is to educate the families about vegetarianism; and we would like to offer the parents more opportunities to learn how to cook foods correctly, because we realise that many of those who come to us are children and parents who have always eaten refined, non-vegetarian food. We also like to take the childrens' wishes into account: they may, for example, ask their parents for tofu, vegeburgers or rice the way it tastes at school. As a result, often parents come to us in order to learn the techniques to satisfy their childrens' new needs. We are convinced that the vegetarian diet, especially for children up to the ages of 5-6, is the best - such as the mother's milk, fruits, vegetables and so on - because during those early years the children's organs are still maturing. Non-vegetarian diets, on the other hand, are too high in starch, carbohydrates and fatty foods that place a great strain on the whole body, bringing problems which will emerge during adulthood.

Ethically we follow a philosophy called Near Humanism, which is a mixture of Eastern and Western philosophies. Basically that means we introduce the children to yoga techniques and exercises to help their inner growth, but we also appreciate Western rationality. Near Humanism maintains that all creatures want to live, to exist, and they suffer if their lives are taken away from them prematurely; our philosophy also appreciates the interdependence of the cosmic cycle, but rather than seeing this as an abstract idea, it aims to develop in the child a devotional attitude or a relationship between themselves and the macrocosm, so that universal love is considered a divine quality and something that needs to be awakened. To be more specific, we maintain that spiritual people suffer if they see or know that others are suffering, and in the same way share the joy and happiness of others. This "empathy" is not physical, but something that can be developed, and which we all have the potential for. Yoga tells us, then, that we all have divine possibilities. We are the most thoughtful and intelligent beings in the universe, but this places on our shoulders the great responsibility of taking care of Creation. Dr Dall'Anese will explain the major physical effects of vegetarianism, but of course, if we are teaching children, if we are trying to expand their love and affection not only for human beings but also plants, animals and the inanimate world, we must be ethical vegetarians.

Our food should be taken from life forms that have less mental, physical and spiritual expression; for example, if fruit or wheat are available, why should we kill a fish? In the same way, if there is only fish available, why should we kill a cow? If we organize our planet properly, there is no reason why all of the societies in the world cannot live on a vegetarian diet. But vegetarianism does not only have physical benefits, but is very important for the psychological and spiritual growth of the child, given the close relationship between body and mind and the positive influence of natural food on the state of the mind. As Prana Krishna Nanda explained to us, the vegetarian diet is essentially a sensitive one, assisting mind-body harmony, the channelling of the person's energy, greater mental lucidity and brightness of body and mind, and it helps transform intellectual ideas into intuition and spiritual experiences: in other words the vegetarian diet helps create a pleasant psychological atmosphere. But that is not all. The kinds of messages children receive from their environment are very important, which is why, for example, we take particular care in our choice of teaching materials and in the teachers' positive outlook on events. Unfortunately, when the children are out of school they receive negative messages from society, so our educational strategy is to fill them with songs and music and positive ideas, and stimulate their spiritual feelings.

I'll end my contribution today with the statement that the final product of the food we eat is called lymph, and that chlorophyll is very important for the production of lymph in the body. Cows, for example, produce large quantities of lymph and milk because of their green diet; so all breastfeeding mothers should eat plenty of green food. In small children, with their pure, new bodies, we can observe an aura, that is a particular state in which their cells radiate a harmony between their physical growth and their thoughts. According to yoga philosophy, the universe embodies sathya, a Sanskrit word which means "truth". When we follow the truth, when we act according to the dictates of morality, our willpower increases; in fact strong willpower can give us the determination we need to complete any mission we commit to in our lives. It's vitally important that this willpower is channelled in a positive direction, which is why educating a vegetarian child is so interesting; the subsequent phases in the child's psychological development will come later. Sometimes parents admit to us that they are perplexed about imposing a decision like vegetarianism on their children: they wonder if it is right, or whether their children should have free choice in the matter. The answer is that guidance is needed at such a tender age, which is why little children follow the precepts of teachers and parents. I always tell these parents that their children will have the chance to freely choose whether or not to remain vegetarian when they reach adolescence.

Small children have a natural tendency to love animals, and I'm sure those of you who remember childhood experiences with animals can testify to this. If these feelings are reinforced and the relationship with animals is maintained, then the children will never want to eat them. I remember a very bad experience: once, when I was 4 or 5 years old, I was invited to visit grandfather's farm. At a certain point I saw some men running after several chickens, until they caught them and cut off their heads. It was such a shock! Although I do my best to put it to the back of my mind, such a horrible experience will always stay with me. What adults teach little children is vitally important; as I work with them I become more and more convinced that they have a natural affinity with the world, just as Near Humanism teaches us.

- translations by Hugh Rees, Milan - commissioned by Associazione Vegetariana Italiana (AVI)