The two teenagers in front of me in the checkout line must have been hungry. They stood there looking out of place—scruffy facial hair, untucked shirts, hands in the pockets of their baggy jeans—until they reached the front of the line and started pulling things out of their cart. A twelve-pack of Mountain Dew, two loaves of Wonder Bread, lots of American cheese, mayonnaise, a jar of Velveeta…
I stood there with my asparagus, green pepper and potatoes, feeling more horrified with each thing they put on the conveyor. "No meat?" I wondered. "They must be buying meat, too." Sure enough, a second later the teenagers fished several packages of luncheon meats out of the bottom of their cart. (Funny how we can predict these things, huh?)
My first reaction on seeing these kids was to wonder how they could survive—how anyone could survive—on such a diet, even for one day. No fruits, no vegetables, no whole grains. What would these people look like in 30 years? Would they even live another 30 years? Shouldn't there be a law against destroying healthy young bodies?
Then I remembered what my diet was like when I was a teenager. I lived for fast food. When I "cooked" it was most likely a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese—add a couple of hot dogs and extra cheese, please. And what point was there in buying anything smaller than half a gallon of ice cream?
One Saturday a buddy and I decided to take a long hike down the railroad tracks. (I'm pretty sure this event was the inspiration for the Stephen King book and movie Stand by Me, but I digress.) What did we take to sustain us on our arduous journey? Vienna sausage, of course. Lots of those tiny cans of Vienna sausage.
When you think about it, it isn't surprising that teenagers have terrible diets. First they start with the terrible diets of their parents. Add to that, years of fast-food "Happy Meals" (i.e., being rewarded with toys for eating things that are bad for them), a decade of dreadful school lunches planned to appease the meat and dairy lobbies, and thousands of hours of celebrity-laden TV ads for processed foods loaded with fat and sugar. It's small wonder that when teens start shopping for themselves, the things that go into their grocery carts are pretty darned toxic. It's small wonder that each generation of teenagers eats a little worse than the previous one.
Of course, when you think you're going to live forever, unhealthy things are "cool." (I love that word; it was even "cool" when I was a kid!) Things advertised by the latest celebrities, especially with tie-ins to big sports events and movies, are "cool" too. Somehow, carrots and grapefruits just don't have quite the same pizzazz.
It doesn't have to be this way. I'm convinced that with a little creativity there are some things we can do to reverse this trend and make vegetarianism even "cooler" than eating the toxic stuff. Of course that means delving into the "popest" of pop culture and, in some instances, catering to the most vile and decadent of human desires. (Hey, isn't that what advertising is all about?) If we're willing to so delve and cater, here are my suggestions:
- Make the Nike "swoosh" the first letter of "vegetarian." (Then the slogan "just do it" might really mean something!)
- Convince Britney Spears to abstain from meat rather than sex.
- Hire Michael Jordan to do a banana commercial.
- Hire Mike Tyson to advertise for Tyson Foods.
- Find anti-vegetarian literature in an al Qaeda cave.
- Make the contestants on Survivor eat Brussels sprouts.
- Have John McDougall beat up Robert Atkins in a special pay-per-view grudge match sponsored by the World Wrestling Federation.
- Give out "Bobble-head Gandhi" dolls with the purchase of a Veggie Whopper at Burger King.
- Get to kids early with a Sesame Street character named Freddy Fiber, who takes an imaginary journey through their intestines and teaches good colonic hygiene.
- Make lima beans an official sponsor of the annual Sturgis Harley-Davidson rally.
- Have Steven Spielberg make the blockbuster film Geriatric Park, about vegetarian octogenarians who terrorize meat-eaters visiting their retirement home.
- Have Steven Spielberg make the blockbuster film Groceries' List, about adorable vegetarian dinosaurs held in an alien concentration camp in space.
- Develop action games for Nintendo, Xbox and PlayStation featuring our favorite vegetarian superhero, the Veggie Avenger.
- Launch a massive advertising campaign emphasizing that "vegetarian food comes from plants—just like tobacco and beer!"
- Package broccoli in cigarette cartons.
- Print and distribute millions of bumper stickers that say, "Vegetarians have inner peas."
- Open "Weed Eaters," a franchised chain of drive-through salad bar restaurants.
Yeah, in the great scheme of things I'm convinced that vegetarianism (and even we stuffy vegetarians!) can be as "cool" as we want. All it will take is a slight moral compromise, huge amounts of money, and the right public relations people.
Maybe the first thing we should do is hire those two kids from the grocery store line as technical consultants.