by Nora Kramer
Once a year, Ben & Jerry’s celebrates Free Cone Day, where they give out free ice cream all day long. The line of people waiting for ice cream is around the block.
For years on that day, when I lived in San Francisco a few blocks from the Ben & Jerry’s on Haight Ashbury, a group of local vegan activists and I wheeled out a TV and VCR (yup) out front of the ice cream shop, showing all those people waiting for ice cream footage of the horrific cruelty happening to cows on dairy farms.
A lot of us took the day off from work each year to do it.
We gave out hundreds of samples of delicious vegan ice cream we bought at the health food store down the street with our own money. (This was before the amazing VegFund came along to fund activists giving out vegan food samples).
We passed out leaflets about the benefits of vegan eating, and we got people to sign a petition (on pieces of paper that I mailed to Ben & Jerry’s corporate (this was years before the Change.org petition that got almost 30,000 people to sign) asking them to add vegan flavors.
Those days were inspiring but frustrating. People waiting in line were appalled by the mistreatment of the cows, loved the vegan samples, and agreed that Ben & Jerry’s should carry non-dairy ice cream, but they weren’t getting out of line for their free dairy ice cream either.
At the end of the day, we, a bunch of activists who called in sick to work to help animals and the environment by using our own money to buy hundreds of strangers vegan ice cream, spent hours on our feet out of our comfort zone talking to hordes of people who were in line for a leisurely ice cream, and we privately wondered if it made a difference.
For years, Ben & Jerry’s ignored activists’ efforts and people’s requests for a vegan option, ignoring all the data about how bad dairy is for the environment while disingenuously marketing itself as eco-friendly and as a wholesome small company, while it is in fact owned by massive multinational soap company Unilever.
Maybe we wasted all that time and effort and heart and money on free vegan ice cream?
Today I am reminded how change often happens.
Ben & Jerry’s is launching four incredible-looking flavors of vegan ice cream made from almond milk.
And so the world changes.
There were years of activists trying and trying, dealing with our frustrations about change not happening as fast as we’d like and the injustices and cruelties that continue in the meantime.
There was doubting whether things will ever change, giving ourselves and others pep talks to keep going, trying to stay positive and continue in our activism on this and lots of other causes.
Years of activists making sacrifices, not giving up (and of course there are those who did give up), and continuing to push for change — even in the simple way of getting a leading ice cream company to offer a vegan option that spares cows and has a much smaller ecological footprint — is what causes social change.
Of course, amazing cruelty-free pioneer vegan food companies like Tofutti and So Delicious Dairy Free led the way for the mainstream to follow, introducing all of us, including the people in line for a free ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s on Free Cone Day, how delicious vegan ice cream is and how unnecessary it is to involve cows in making our desserts.
And then years later, with no proximate or clearly direct relationship between each activist’s individual efforts and this result today, there’s a win.
“We’ve definitely had a large demand from our consumers to have a non-dairy offering,” Ben & Jerry’s spokesperson Lindsay Bumps said recently.
But she said it years after we spent hours giving out free vegan ice cream and mailing them hundreds of petitions. And then doing it again the next year and the year after that, and all the countless things we all did every day in between and before and since.
That’s because for years Ben & Jerry’s ignored us. And that’s what change sometimes looks like. A social change victory — whether in legalizing gay marriage or the right to vote or raising the minimum wage or a massive ice cream company adding some vegan ice cream flavors — is often like seeing light from a star that was emitted years ago and is no longer there. To mix metaphors, the fruits may come a long time after the labor.
I don’t mean to equate Ben & Jerry’s making vegan ice cream with some type of Berlin Wall coming down. But the massive impact of livestock production on the environment, animals, and human health make this a social justice issue, and expanding the accessibility of vegan items to bring them into the mainstream is critical to reducing our society’s near suicidal dependence on factory farming.
This win is part of a tipping point of related victories on this issue in recent years, even recent days — from dozens of companies implementing major animal welfare reforms in meat and egg production, to Hellman’s following Just Mayo‘s lead by offering a vegan mayo, to Target’s new line of vegan meats, to companies like Wendy’s and Subway incorporating new vegan options.
These wins are all the result of a massive accumulation of years of activists’ efforts. From handing out free vegan ice cream, to donating to nonprofit organizations advocating for corporate reforms, to choosing more vegan meals each day, to handing out leaflets, to giving presentations, to undercover investigations of the cruelties happening on factory farms, to so many other things dedicated people are doing to make a difference, we are cumulatively bringing about change on a massive issue.
It just sometimes takes a while to see the results of it.
As a summer camp for social change, YEA Camp trains young activists to make a difference on social justice issues they care about. We even have a session just for animal advocates. (You or the 12-17 year-old in your life can find out about it or register here.) I can tell you these passionate teens want to bring about change NOW.
It can be tough, but we emphasize the need for action amidst the need for patience and faith to keep at it even though change often takes a lot longer than we’d like, and we don’t always see the results of our efforts. It is a tough but important lesson.
To all the activists whose efforts are changing our food system, or any other element of social justice, we hope you’ll acknowledge and celebrate your accomplishments by trying out some delicious new vegan ice cream, now available, thanks to so many people’s efforts, at a supermarket near you.