6-year-old vegetarian from Brandon teaches her mom a thing or two

By Elisabeth Parker, Times Staff Writer
August 5, 2009

 
Brooke English, 6, finishes off her salad and peanut butter and jelly sandwich dinner at her Brandon home. An animal lover, she gave up meat two years ago.

[WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times]

BRANDON — Brooke English gave up eating meat for ethical reasons: She loves animals.

Sometimes, though rarely, she eats fish. But she hasn't had a bite of chicken or beef or pork in two years.

Brooke is 6. She recently munched a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a salad in her Brandon home, where there's an ideological divide. Brooke lives with her mother, who eats meat.

These days, Brooke is not alone. Young children are deciding to cut meat out of their diets and many of their meat-eating parents are backing them.

"I think she's 100 percent right," said Brooke's mother, Heidi English. "I'm so proud of her. She tells kids in her class not to eat meat. She really stands behind it."

Debby Magill, public relations director for Tampa Bay Vegetarians, which has more then 120 members, occasionally hears from parents of such precocious children. She was approached recently by a mother of a 10-year-old girl who wants to be vegetarian.

Magill, who gave up meat at 14, encouraged the mother to support her daughter's heartfelt desire, but cautioned her to avoid supplementing meat with junk foods.

"I applaud them," she said of the kids. "It's taking the high road. It's hard but so much easier than before."

Magill became a vegetarian in the 1970s in New York City. Her parents, both doctors, opposed the decision, convinced she wouldn't get enough protein. They sneaked meat onto her plate.

Back then, there weren't many vegetarian options in restaurants or stores, Magill remembers.

But today, children are signing on to vegetarianism faster than adults. Sales of veggie burgers and bean burritos are burgeoning, even offered daily in schools.

On TV, kids are shown herbivores, such as 8-year-old Lisa from The Simpsons. They sometimes convert after seeing YouTube animal slaughter videos.

A survey by Vegetarian Times magazine of 5,050 adults found that 3.2 percent are vegetarians. They were equally divided on their reasons, to improve their health or animal welfare.

Brooke, like many younger vegetarians, chose the latter.

In the grocery store with her mother, she doesn't see meat. She sees cows and pigs, the kind that talk in movies.

"Mommy, why do you have to eat animals?" she asks.

"Sometimes, I think they're yummy," English tells her. But she, too, has cut way back on her consumption.

Brooke also constantly asks what things are made from.

It started for Brooke one Saturday when she went with her mother to the Attorney General's Office in Tampa where English is an office manager. On a door, Brooke saw an anti-circus picture of an elephant with chains on its legs. She asked her mother about it. English told her that's how they make circus animals do tricks. Brooke decided she wouldn't go to the circus, which they had been planning. She didn't like the idea of animals being mistreated.

Soon after, she made another connection — she quit eating meat.

English is single and wants her daughter to be strong in her convictions. She thinks by encouraging her to make her own decisions she'll be empowered to continue doing so.

English remembers when her own mother made her eat what she cooked, including cooked carrots, which she won't eat today.

English consulted Brooke's doctor, and was told vegetarian diets can be healthy for kids. In fact, Brooke had often been sick before she gave up meat and has not been since.

Her mom makes sure she eats plenty of nuts and beans. Brooke likes macaroni and cheese, spinach, broccoli and celery. She wants people to know: "You can still eat healthy but you don't have to eat meat."

She loves "pizza and olives and lima beans . . . all kinds of healthy stuff," she says. Just not animals.

Last Thanksgiving, English cooked a big turkey and Brooke almost passed out when she saw that it had no head.

"I was like no ma'am," said Brooke. "I do not want it."

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.