Quest for a Compassionate Plate

My journey from meat to mangoes

Article and photographs by Jackson Foster

Odds are that as you're reading this, I am eating bananas, mangos, papayas, grapes, persimmons, oranges, tomatoes or a combination of all of the above. I am “that guy” who posts videos and pictures on various social media platforms of myself working out, discussing plant-based nutrition and eating fruit; or, as I prefer to call it, the sex organs of plants.

In case you haven’t watched my YouTube videos, here is what a day’s worth of eating currently looks like for me, a raw, vegan, fruitarian muscle builder:

8:00 a.m. A medium-sized watermelon or half a large melon smoothie.

10:30 a.m. A bag of grapes.

12:30 p.m. Eight persimmons and a few dates an hour before working out.

4:00 p.m. A seven-banana smoothie with five dates, one tablespoon of chia seeds, one tablespoon of hemp seeds, a few walnuts and a dash of cinnamon post-workout. 

6:30 p.m. Raw spiralized zucchini noodles with spinach, cucumbers and pumpkin seeds. Dressing: one mango, one papaya, one avocado, one tomato, chia and hemp seeds. 

9:30 p.m. Banana Ice Cream: three frozen bananas, five dates and a handful of cashews.

A common critique of veganism is its lack of variety, but I eat just as diverse an amount of food per day as the average non-vegan person. I purchase my food in bulk, buying from the organic wholesalers that supply Whole Foods and Natural Grocers. My weekly fruit purchase is 10 percent less expensive than if I had bought the same amount of food directly off the shelf. To give you an example, every week I buy a 40 pound case of organic, fair trade bananas for $32. When you do the math, this translates to 280 calories per dollar, which makes organic banana meals cheaper than a Big Mac for the same amount of calories.

Some people view me as a novelty or character on campus, but I have not always been the radical vegan dude I am today. I like to listen to music, dance, hike, make art and hang out with friends just like most Colorado College students. I also like to eat junk food, smoke weed and drink beer—I just choose not do those things anymore. So, what happened? How did I go from a “normal” kid in high school to a sometimes socially isolated mythical character of a college student? 

I became a “junk food vegetarian” when I was 14 years old. I use this term because when I becamea vegetarian, it was not for the health benefits. As a vegan for primarily ethical reasons, I feel that you can make a huge difference in the word by choosing not to eat animals while still eating unhealthy vegetarian foods. When I went vegetarian I couldn’t care less about the nutritional quality of my food. I ate cheese, eggs, milk and processed fried food. If you want to start eating healthier, going vegetarian is a great and important step, but it does not end there.

Ever since I can remember, I have had an emotional response to eating animals. I was raised with flesh on my plate and I ate it even though it tore me apart inside. It wasn’t until the eighth grade that I realized going veggie did not require an application or membership card. It was Halloween night; I was microwaving beef burritos in my home with my best friend, and I finally said fuck it. I threw the burrito away, ate an apple with peanut butter and proclaimed myself a vegetarian. 

For five years I happily lived the junk food vegetarian life, no longer eating dead animals but still indulging in other meals produced with cruelty, something I didn't register at the time. After high school, I took a gap year and decided to ride my bicycle across the country, from coast to coast.

I rode day after day past thousands of acres of fertile farmland growing golden ears of corn and soybeans. Each day, I had to explain to waiters across the country what a “vegetarian” was, as they gazed at me, googly-eyed. I learned that the food grown across the vast American highways was not for human consumption, but for the animals we own. I was exposed to an overwhelming number of Americans who were unhealthy. I also noticed how beautiful the American landscape is and felt the need to preserve its glory, freedom and gifts. Two weeks after arriving home in Los Angeles, I shipped myself off once again, but a little further this time. I went to Borneo, Indonesia, and volunteered at an orangutan orphanage. 

During my two months in Borneo, I lived with a local family in the middle of the jungle. They fed me rice, fruit and vegetables three times a day, every day. I witnessed lean and smiling 80-year-old men climb trees with orangutans as if they were teenagers. My temporary community had no traditional education, no Western medicine and most individuals made less than $100 a month. In my reductionist American mindset, they had no business being so healthy with such an apparent lack of resources.

While these indigenous people were unintentionally vegan most of the time, once in a while they would kill a chicken roaming around the village and eat the entire thing as a family for dinner. I became vegetarian because I felt uncomfortable with the disconnect between the killer and the consumer. Having seen footage of the common abuse in factory farms, I couldn’t pretend to happily pay for this cruelty to take place behind closed doors. I finally found myself, as an L.A. boy, in a position to test my vegetarianism and kill an animal for food.

It was January 2012, around sunset, when my host dad handed me a knife and a living chicken. I took the bird in between my knees, extended its soft neck and gently sliced the blade across its throat. The blood flowed into a bowl until the chicken stopped flinching. I dropped it on the ground and watched it slowly pant for a few minutes until it was dead. I plucked all its feathers, chopped the unwanted limbs off, broke open the rib cage and removed the stomach, intestines, lungs and heart. My hands were drenched with blood. I cooked the most commonly eaten parts of the animal in a wok and served it for dinner. The texture was unappetizing and it tasted like muscles and skin tissue. I spent the next few hours that night on the toilet, a hole in the ground, with my stomach in knots. 

I couldn’t help but feel like a jerk for taking the life of a being that I had seen running around, breathing and eating food like me, only to get an upset stomach. I had lived just fine for years not eating meat; I wasn’t missing anything nutritionally, I was happy to not contribute to the murder of animals, and I couldn’t find anything to justify eating them. I continued experimenting with eating different animals during my time in South East Asia, including wild boar, chicken and fish. I knew the first time would be emotional, so I went back to evaluate my feelings a few more times.

When I returned home to Los Angeles, I began to delve into the scientific, medical and nutritional archives on the effects of diet and health. I read studies from the meat and dairy advocates of the Weston A. Price Foundation, the plant-based advocacy group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and Dean Ornish’s research promoting a combination of the two. I started experimenting with these different nutritional philosophies for weeks at a time, recording how I felt, how I slept, my bowel movements and level of fitness. Time and time again, both my experimentation and research kept leading to one conclusion: The more plants and fewer animal products I ate, the better I felt.

I found radical information and theories deeming cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis, amongst many other diseases, nutritional diseases that need never exist with a proper diet. This meant millions of fewer premature deaths and billions of dollars withheld from the pharmaceutical industry.

In August 2012, I declared myself a vegan, a word I never thought I would associate with only a few months before. Going vegan has become taboo. People often think of the word “vegan” as a social category, like hipster, preppy, crunchy or goth, forgetting that veganism has real impacts on the local and global community.

I was having fun treating my body as a temple, living a lifestyle that would make it function optimally. I stopped drinking alcohol, stopped smoking weed and even started going to bed earlier. Not only did I start to look and feel healthier, but I felt happier. My anxiety lowered, I become more self-confident and I simply had an easier time living in the present, expressing love to my friends and family.

As I began the transition from being a practicing vegan to a vegan activist, I noticed my social life and relationships starting to change. Most people are comfortable with living in the style of the mainstream. We are social animals, and being a part of a group feels better than being alone. People also love to hear good news about their bad habits, and many would rather stay comfortably unaware than learn the reality of the impacts of their diets. 

By speaking out about ways to make the world a more peaceful, sustainable and healthy place, I essentially became the ultimate buzzkill. I started noticing changes in my social life as the word spread of my decision to join the vegan tribe. It’s interesting how simply changing your own lifestyle practices has the potential to threaten people. When you adopt a firm stance on anything, people will start to question their own habits and ideologies, a scary prospect. I noticed people starting to feel uncomfortable around me, especially during meal times. However, I don’t think people are scared of me striding across the dining hall to criticize them for eating animals—I think people are nervous of my presence provoking doubtful thoughts in their own hearts and minds. 

I also found that I couldn’t eat at restaurants or cafeterias while meeting the nutritional standards I set for myself. Just a couple weeks into my veganism, I was preparing all my own food every day from whole food ingredients. Growing up with a mother that never cooked, I found myself a freshman in college at the Rhode Island School of Design, making all my own food, spending hours a day in the kitchen learning how to cook. My peers became nervous, should they accidentally run into me. These changes happened quickly, and I found my once effortlessly active social life reduced to nothing. There is no doubt a part of it was my fault. My obsession with researching and writing about my new passion left little room for others.

The world I walked through everyday started to feel very different after I exposed myself to the realities of the the enslavement, torture, abuse, murder and consumption of innocent beings and the consequences for our communities. I started to modify my vocabulary around the issue, calling meat what it really is: bacon is pig, beef is cow, artificial insemination is rape, slaughter and murder.

I felt so lucky to be in a community of environmentally conscious peers and professors, but I quickly became frustrated with the minimal discussion of how diet affects climate change and global warming. Both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations have published reports finding animal agriculture to be responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, which makes livestock farming significantly more of an environmental hazard than the entire transportation industry combined. Dr. Richard Oppenlander, one of the leading consultants and researchers on climate change and hunger, has said that if the entire world ended all electricity production and closed all power plants, but continued practicing livestock agriculture as normal, we would still reach the tipping point amount of carbon emissions to raise Earth's temperature two to five degrees Celsius by 2050, rendering the Earth uninhabitable. 

The pepperoni pizza at environmental science lectures made me snap, and still do today. A once-comforting activity of eating ice cream with friends turned into a horror scene: As the Rastall soft serve flowed, I could hear the bellowing cries of mother cows as humans stole their newborns away and then forcibly hooked them up to pumping machines for the desserts we enjoy. I also saw the poor communities around the world feeling the effects of sea level rise and climate change today as we privileged Americans idly stand by, making matters worse. I started practicing yoga diligently in an attempt to calm my mind and bring some peace into my heart before I broke down with depression, rage and frustration at how alone I felt regarding an issue that seemed so brutally obvious.

As the years went on, I became comfortable in the kitchen, started to build some vegan muscle, became an integral part of the online plant-based community and learned the most peaceful and effective ways to communicate with people. The most important thing I have learned so far in my journey is that no one is evil. No one really wants to support cruelty towards animals, world hunger or the destruction of our Earth’s ecosystems. We are simply victims of a society that spends a lot of effort to keep information away from happy consumers. As I started calming my mind, leading by example instead of lecturing down to people, I slowly started to feel accepted back into the community again. I still believe in using forceful language and educating people on truths behind our food and health system, but I now wait for people to come to me instead of constantly preaching to all who cross my path. People seemed less afraid of me and more curious about why and what I was doing. I started receiving questions from friends, family and even teachers about how to improve their health, live sustainably and, of course, where to get protein on a cruelty-free vegan diet. 

The “Plantriotic” plant-powered movement is not about guilt and shaming. It is about peace, health, sustainability and community. The world can survive and thrive on a plant-based economy. In fact, I believe it is the only way we can climb out of the health and environmental ditch we are in right now. Michael Pollan said, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” While I appreciate what Mr. Pollan has done in terms of bringing transparency concerning animal agriculture to the public, I would change his words slightly: “Eat food. As much as you want. Only plants.” Imagine a world with less pain, suffering, disease and destruction. By treating our bodies with respect and love, we are able to do good for ourselves and for the beings with whom we share our planet. Going vegan does not require a degree in nutrition, a drastic change in your food budget or a general sacrifice. This lifestyle is a transition, not a destination, and if your experience turns out to be anything like mine, it can be the greatest gift you give to yourself, to all conscious beings and to the planet.