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Something to chew on
Ballston Spa family eschews all foods, products derived from animals
JENNIFER GISH, Staff writer
First published: Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Aaron Civic walks around the living room offering guests a bowl of meatless chicken nuggets.

"Most of the country is not even vegetarian," the lifelong vegan says. "I think that's part of the problem."

It seems everyone, he says, eats meat.

"Not everyone, Aaron," says Rebecca Civic, leaning over the arm of the sofa in their Ballston Spa home.

And so the 11-year-old boy, who plays guitar and performed an original song about the ills of big-box stores during a municipal meeting, debates with his 8-year-old sister, also a vegan since she was in their mother Susan's womb.

And he offers examples.

"Other countries do eat a lot of fish, like China."

"No, in China they have a rice-based diet," his father, Jed, says. "That's part of their dinner plate."

At the Civic house, a dinner plate serves as a social and political tableau. And according to the nonprofit Vegetarian Resource Group in Baltimore, it puts them in a category occupied by only 1 percent of U.S. adults and a half percent of kids ages 6 to 17.

The family of four (and two dogs, Hammer and Savanah) all follow a vegan lifestyle. They don't eat or use anything derived from an animal, which means no meat, dairy, eggs and honey and, except for rare circumstances, no products made of wool, silk or leather.

"It was the compassion for animals. It was the respect for life," Jed says. "Once I opened my mind to it, I thought this is a better way to go. This is healthier, and I don't have to conform to the ways of society."

He homeschools the kids in the dining room while Susan works at her law practice downstairs, because he doesn't want them in regular school where he says they'll be told following the food pyramid and drinking milk are necessary to grow up strong.

He talks to them about environmentalism, commercialism and animal rights. The couple, which used to spend every Saturday protesting the fur industry when they lived in New York City, has taken the kids to "fur demos" (peaceful anti-fur demonstrations that aren't about throwing paint on coats) and on summer vacations to a vegan festival in Pennsylvania.

Life and business

Jed converted his car to run on vegetable oil. Although he had to make a vegan concession because the model he thought would work best, an old Mercedes, only ever came with leather seats. The same concession had to be made when Aaron wanted to play baseball, because it's impossible to find a good nonleather glove.

A copy of "The Vegetarian Traveler," a 1997 guide book Jed and Susan wrote as they traveled the world before they became parents, sits on the family bookshelf. And when he's not homeschooling the kids, Jed sells meat substitutes to restaurants, stores and individual customers through his business, The Vegan Outpost.

Up until about 15 years ago, Susan and Jed Civic were meat eaters. Before he met Susan, a fellow Queens native, he started thinking about adopting a vegetarian lifestyle after reading about animal cruelty.

He was, he says, an "oddball vegetarian," a bachelor who kept a vegetarian kitchen at home, but was known to order meat dishes when he ate out. As he learned about "factory farming," a name assigned by objectors to large livestock farms where animals are raised primarily indoors, he says he became more convinced that using animal products was cruel.

When he met Susan, she began eating out with him at vegetarian restaurants, and a year into their marriage they were vegans.

Radicals and fanatics

In the mid-1990s, Susan held 1-year-old Aaron as police handcuffed Jed for protesting at the annual Fourth of July Nathan's Famous hot dog eating contest on Coney Island. He was cited, but the criminal trespass and disorderly conduct charges were later thrown out.

"When we first became vegetarians we were accused of being radicals and fanatics by -- my mother," Jed says.

Their families eventually became more tolerant of their lifestyle. Susan says her father even incorporated a lot more veggie burgers into his diet.

A vegetarian magazine once featured Susan for remaining vegan while pregnant. And after some research and discussion with doctors, the couple decided not to vaccinate the children, because Jed says some of the immunizations are tested on animals or are derived from them.

Raising vegetarian kids is a source of some debate. When Dr. Benjamin Spock, a convert to vegetarianism late in life, revised his 1946 classic "Baby and Child Care" for the last time before his 1998 death, he recommended children eat a meat- and dairy-free diet after age 2 because they'd be "less likely to develop weight problems, diabetes, high blood pressure and some forms of cancer."

Pediatricians and dietitians assailed the doctor's advice, saying it may not be a good diet for growing children.

Healthy kids

But with the exception of a single ear infection when Rebecca was a baby, Susan Civic says her kids have been quite healthy, and probably eat better than most children.

And they've never asked for a hamburger or fish sticks, though the parents say if the children ever leave the lifestyle, they'd be disappointed but supportive.

"If they ever have a desire to try it, what can I do?" Jed says. "They're their own people. I can only do my part to educate them so there's never a desire."

For now, the kids go to potluck dinners with the Saratoga Vegetarian Society and skip the cheesy pizza when they eat with their nonvegetarian friends.

Aaron talks about how he and his father want to start buying all the family's clothes at thrift shops, so they're not being wasteful.

And the aspiring young musician searches his memory for vegetarian role models.

Paul McCartney and maybe Mick Jagger?

He saw the Rolling Stones frontman once on television "eating a salad with Bono."

"I don't know if that means he's a vegetarian," his father says.

And the discussion continues.

Jennifer Gish can be reached at 

Aaron Civic, left, and his sister, Rebecca, feed a natural vegetarian dog food to "Hammer."

Susan; Aaron, 11, and Rebecca, 8, Civic arrange some of the vegetarian foods in their refrigerator.