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For breakfast, junior Alex Stonebarger doesn’t eat the typical bacon-eggs-milk breakfast. She just drinks green tea. When it’s time for lunch, she doesn’t go through the lunch line. Instead, she eats a peanut butter and jelly or a sandwich from Whole Foods. And for dinner, her mom makes a meal for the whole family and then a separate dish for Alex. But this is normal for her. She’s used to it. Because she’s a vegan.
If you walk by her in the halls, you wouldn’t automatically assume Stonebarger is a vegan. She isn’t a hippie or a waif. She doesn’t look pasty or sick. She wears leggings and riding boots, and her hair is brushed regularly. She’s a typical high school girl with an atypical diet.
Being vegan is nothing new to Stonebarger. She’s been a vegan for six years and was a vegetarian for five before that. But for junior Ayana Curran-Howes and senior Jack Sernett, veganism hasn’t taken up such a large portion of their lives. Curran-Howes has been a vegan for two years, Sernett for one year and two months.
“I became a vegan for a lot of reasons,” Sernett said. “It makes me feel like I’m better for myself. I’m doing good things for animals and I’m saving water, which is what I’m all for. I’m just feeling healthier.”
A vegan diet includes no animal by-products. As vegans, Stonebarger, Curran-Howes and Sernett can’t eat what most high schoolers eat. Except for Oreos and Pringles, junk food is pretty much ruled out. Five Guys and Panda Express are out of the question. No meat, no cheese, no eggs.
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In the car on the way to Arkansas, Stonebarger looked out the window. She and her family drove past long stretches of farmland. The scenery was nice, but not the egg factories. Stonebarger passed by several egg factory farms before she started thinking. She was a vegetarian because of the poor treatment of animals. But what she hadn’t realized until then was that other than killing them, the animals were kept in terrible conditions. Hundreds of animals packed into small spaces, mistreated and abused.
Two years ago, Curran-Howes picked up “Generation V,” a guide to being a vegan teenager, wanting to know more about what she was eating. For her, the ugly truth was better than willful ignorance.
The turning point for Sernett was when he saw a video of the animal factories and how animals are treated. It was cruel. It was gruesome. But it’s the reality and he didn’t want to support that.
For them, food is a small sacrifice when it comes to saving animals. To saving the environment. To saving water. But as three modern high school vegans, Stonebarger, Curran-Howes and Sernett make that sacrifice everyday.
Food preparation takes up a lot time, but they’re used to it. Veganism used to be hard. But for them, it’s just a matter of willpower.
Because of their dietary restrictions, eating in the cafeteria is difficult or impossible for most vegan and vegetarian students. According to head cafeteria manager Linda Bricker, pasta with plain red sauce, peanut butter and jelly and salads are their main options. Bricker plans to bring up vegetarian and vegan diets at her next meeting.
“It’s becoming a larger choice for people,” Bricker said.
Regularly eating in the cafeteria isn’t really an option for Stonebarger, Curran-Howes and Sernett. All three pack and bring their lunches every day. They have to monitor their protein, making sure they get enough. Veganism takes time. It takes patience. And going back to a non-vegan diet isn’t really an option either.
“I wouldn’t feel right,” Stonebarger said. “I would be really upset with myself.”
And despite all of the health benefits, veganism can be negative. When Stonebarger goes to a restaurant, sometimes she’ll have to send back her order. When Sernett’s friends want to go to Chick-Fil-A, he can’t eat anything there. When everyone’s eating out for homecoming, the only things that they can order are a glass of water or a barren salad.
It can be embarrassing. But when they remind themselves why they’re vegans, they remember that it’s worth it.
“There’s tons of research out there [about veganism],” Sernett said. “[So much that] you don’t know what to believe. But I kind of feel like it changes my life. Like I’m doing the right thing.”
Video by Mattie Germann