Written by: Isidora Bugarski, EBC Balkans
EBC Balkans interviewed Ivana Surya, the founder of the platforms “Vegan Mom” and “Conscious Cooking,” answering questions about being a vegan parent, her personal experience with veganism, and the challenges along the way.
Ivana is a professional accountant but has been actively advocating for veganism and spreading positivity worldwide, especially in the Balkans, through several initiatives and organizations.
HEALTHY EATING AND VEGANISM
People often think that veganism and healthy eating are the same, but that’s not always the case, especially nowadays. For me, veganism is not just a dietary choice; it’s a way of life. It reflects my relationship with others, the world, animals, the environment, and even other people. When we harm the environment, we compromise the quality of life for others. We are all interconnected—animals, plants, people, nature. This is the way of life known as ahimsa, meaning non-violence, in Sanskrit.
In the past, veganism was equivalent to healthy eating, as vegans consumed plant-based food they prepared themselves. With the rise of processed industrial food, this has changed. As more people opt for meatless meals, industries have recognized the demand and started producing vegan food, which may not necessarily be healthy. It’s essential to combine foods to meet all nutritional needs. Some processed vegan foods, like certain cheeses, may be high in unhealthy fats, resembling dairy cheeses, creating a misconception.
While some people adopt veganism for health benefits, I chose it initially for ethical reasons, for the well-being of animals. Later, I discovered the environmental advantages in terms of the impact of meat and dairy industries on global warming, further solidifying my commitment to veganism. Health concerns became more prominent during pregnancy, as I focused on providing my baby with all the necessary nutrients through a vegan diet.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
I can say that I’ve abstained from meat for most of my life. In high school, I hadn’t even heard of veganism; vegetarianism was the extent of my knowledge. My transition happened gradually, facing the challenge without much support since there were no groups or the internet at the time. I relied on a weekly magazine as my sole source of information. It was a slow start, but my determination prevailed. My parents accepted it, initially thinking it was a phase, but as the years went by, they realized it was a lasting choice.
Entering vegetarianism and veganism is compelling when you discover all the reasons and aspects. Once you become aware, there’s no turning back. I would rather go hungry than participate in that industry. As a consumer, I feel that my choices influence whether something continues to be produced. If I buy a product, it will be manufactured; if I say no, and everyone else does the same, it won’t be produced. Participating in violence against animals became something I could no longer engage in.
TURNING POINT AND RESET PHASE
I distinctly remember the turning point when I learned about not consuming honey. Initially, I thought it was an exaggeration, but after reading about it, I decided I couldn’t contribute to those practices. I felt a sense of guilt about what humans do to nature, animals, and even small bees. At that moment, I didn’t know what I would eat or how I would replace milk, honey, etc. It was a challenging period, and I even forgave myself for occasional slips. There is a transitional period where the body adjusts to a new diet. Among vegans, we call it a reset.
THE ALIEN AMONG HUMANS
Unfortunately, veganism is still a taboo topic in our society, and people hold prejudices against it. I’ve long been an animal rights activist, working with the organization “Prijatelji životinja” (Friends of Animals). I tried to bring certain issues into the public discourse, answering people’s questions and dispelling misconceptions. People often reject veganism without proper education. This initiative serves as a way to break down those barriers.
The misunderstanding is challenging because sometimes you feel like an alien. Vegans make up only about 3-4%, and back then, it was perhaps around 1% globally. Regardless of who you talk to, the conversations are similar, and it can become tiresome over time. Today, discussions around veganism are more commonplace, but 15 or 20 years ago, it was different.
I have even lost some friends over my vegan lifestyle. One friend told me to go hang out with other vegans and that he would no longer be my friend. It’s the cost of my veganism, but I can’t go back. I don’t want to start eating meat to regain a friendship.
Often people tell me that they would easily become vegans if everyone else did. It took me a long time to accept, during my time as an activist, that when I explain the reasons for veganism to someone and they understand it, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll become vegan. It’s challenging for me to accept that we’re not all the same, and some people simply can’t, and I had to stop judging them. Over time, it accumulated many negative emotions in me, becoming a significant burden, and I had to change myself and accept it, and I am still working on that.
CHALLENGES IN THE FAMILY
When you start with veganism, you miss some tastes, but over time, that fades away. Today, there are many substitutes with similar tastes, like vegan mayonnaise. When I started, I simply eliminated some foods and accepted them peacefully.
When I met my husband, who was not a vegan at the time, I adjusted to him to make his transition to veganism easier. I started leaning towards traditional recipes. The same happened when our daughter was born. Because children see friends eating certain foods, and traditional food is served in kindergarten, I would take vegan meals that resembled what other children were eating. If the food looks different, the child feels different. Some kids might not play with her, and it wouldn’t be good for her psychologically; she wouldn’t be able to fit in. That’s why it was important to me that the food looked and smelled the same as non-vegan food. That’s how my ideas for vegan recipes started, as I adapted for her and also for my husband. For example, for Easter, I made her a vegan kinder egg. I ordered toys from eBay and packed them inside to make them look real. She inspires me because I didn’t miss anything, but it was more because of her and my husband.
In my family, not everyone is vegan. So, when we gather as a family, and my cousin asks my sister to make pancakes, I quickly make vegan pancakes for my daughter. It’s a challenge. If they order pizza, I quickly make vegan pizza, and so on. I told them to let me know in advance what they will eat so I can adjust. Now there is even vegan pizza and vegan ice cream, so it’s easier, but the principle is they eat their food, we eat ours, and that’s it.”
VEGAN MOM INITIATIVE
For me, it was never an option for my child not to be vegan.
From the beginning, it was important for me to learn everything necessary to provide my child with what it needed to develop normally. I knew it was possible because I had friends who were vegans, and their children were vegans. So, I was sure that my child would be vegan too, but I didn’t exactly know how. At that time, I read literature in English because there was none available in our language. Recently, a book came out in our language called ‘Zeleni život, vege mama’ (‘Green Life, Veg Mom’), where one of my recipes is featured. The authors of the book are both vegan moms, one of whom is a nutritionist and contributed from a scientific standpoint. Today, it’s much easier to raise vegan children than it was before.
My daughter accepted being vegan as something normal. I explained it to her by saying that just like some dinosaurs were herbivores and some were carnivores, there are people who eat meat and those who don’t, and we are the ones who don’t. She accepted it without any issues and doesn’t see any problem with it. It was important to me that she didn’t feel isolated in society but also that she didn’t judge her friends. They all accepted it well. Even at kindergarten, her teacher accepted it excellently because there was another girl who was a vegetarian, and the teacher talked to the children about it, and they all accepted it nicely. That socialization was very important to me so that she didn’t feel like an alien because she was vegan, and thankfully, I succeeded in that. (Jokingly, she says she decided to have only one child that fulfills her capacities.)
There was a Facebook group for vegan moms, but often, moms with children allergic to milk or eggs joined. They didn’t know how to prepare food without eggs or how to ensure calcium without milk. They often asked questions in the group about how to cook, and that’s how the idea for Vegan Mom was born. I gave a recipe for sesame as a source of calcium: how to toast it, grind it, something simple. It got so complicated; someone burned it, someone left it raw. I couldn’t believe something so simple could become so complicated. I decided to make a video showing how I did it and sent it to the group. The next question was how to bread without eggs, and that’s how it started. Other vegans discovered it, and other recipes started coming, not only for vegan moms but for all other vegans as well. As my daughter grew up, that food wasn’t simple anymore. In the beginning, I made her gluten-free food too, but when she started kindergarten, I realized I had to compromise on some things.
When I was an activist, I tried hard to explain to people why they should become vegans, and it drained me a lot. So, I decided to explain to people how to become vegans, and how to prepare food, which meant addressing only people for whom everything was clear. It created a much more pleasant, relaxed atmosphere where we could exchange experiences. It went on like that for years, and I enjoyed it immensely. Inspired by Mohanji’s teachings, I was inspired again to return to the question of why. How to become aware of what we eat and how our choices, what we cook, and which foods we buy affect animals, the environment, other people, and our health.
In short, raising awareness about how much our cooking influences everything. It’s essential to emphasize the factor of gratitude before meals. We should express gratitude to all the people who secured our meal, from farmers, transporters, sellers, and others. We are very alienated from each other, and while eating, for example, chocolate, we don’t think about who harvested that cocoa, in what conditions people who grow that food are, or whether they are fairly paid.
I want to raise awareness not only about our relationship with animals but also with other people. When we feel that connection with everyone, we will make different decisions, I deeply believe in that, and Mohanji’s teaching inspired me to do that because everything is interconnected. We cannot do something wrong without it coming back to us.
Non-violence as a way of life, not only in actions but in thoughts, words, and non-violence towards ourselves—there are so many layers of ahimsa. When it is deeply contemplated, a way forward is always found. So, I want to inspire people to think about non-violence and how different the world would be if we all followed that path.