Rikki, who appears on BBC Three's VeganvilleBBC Three

Veganuary: Veganism is tearing our families apart

For these two devoted vegans, it's not just a diet, it's their whole life - but it's caused a rift with meat-eating family members

Thea de Gallier
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The atmosphere in Andrea's kitchen is icier than the drizzle falling along Bexhill seafront outside.

Her head in her hands, Andrea, 52, sighs as her 25-year-old daughter, Rikki-Lee Lemmon, blinks back tears. The pair sit opposite each other refusing to make eye contact – it was hard enough for me to get them to agree to be in the same room for this interview, and now I can see first-hand the depth of the fractures in their relationship. The one topic they'll never agree on has driven them to despair – and no, it isn't Brexit.

It's veganism.

Rikki is one of five vegans who appears on BBC Three's Veganville – a new three-part documentary that sees the vegans move into a house together in Merthyr Tydfil in Wales, for three weeks. Through various methods – some more extreme than others – they try to convince the locals to try veganism. 

But it's nothing compared to the battle between Rikki and Andrea.

Close-up of RikkiBBC Three

"I've been vegan for about four years now," Rikki explains. "I was working a seasonal job as a chef in the French Alps, and I was really inspired by putting together dietary requirements for children. I did it overnight – I watched loads of YouTube videos and decided I wasn't going to eat animal products again."

Rikki admits that she'd tried a few "fad diets" in the past, and didn't initially mention anything to her mum as she didn't want her veganism to be dismissed as a phase. There was another complication, too – when she came back from France, Rikki started working with her mum in Andrea's burger van.

"I blocked it out," she says, when I ask how she squared her veganism with being paid to flip burgers made of meat. "I thought, 'I'm working for a good life, I'm grateful for it'. I just saw meat for what it was, not an innocent animal that was slaughtered against its will."

During filming for Veganville, Rikki decided to quit working in the burger van.

"Mother and daughter working together had its ups and downs," says Andrea. "I was all right with her leaving, it was the right decision for both of us."

A close-up of RikkiBBC Three

I ask Andrea how she feels hearing Rikki talk about meat – her livelihood – in such an emotive way.

"Those are her choices," she says. "But this is my home, and my choices, and what I want to cook and do in my own home is my business. I do take it into consideration, and the other night I cooked a vegan meal."

At this, Rikki sits forward angrily. "Once in a blue moon!" she exclaims, and their voices rise as the argument turns to whether you can bake a good cake without milk and eggs. After a shrill exchange Rikki grunts and slumps back into her chair.

"I don't want to be dictated to how this household's going to be run," Andrea says firmly. She offers me another cup of tea, and I feel slightly guilty asking for soya milk.

'I don't want a debate'

Around 1% of the UK population – 600,000 people – were vegan in 2019, according to charity The Vegan Society. Well known food brands are waking up to the vegan market and there's big interest in the subject in cities for sure (Brighton, Bristol, Norwich, Cardiff and York are the top places in the UK for internet searches containing the term "vegan"). But outside large metropolitan areas the interest is growing too – Google told BBC Three there'd been a noticeable increase in online searches about veganism in Derby, Bradford, Huddersfield, Worcester and Bolton over the past year. 

The movement is slower to catch on further afield, though, in places like Merthyr Tydfil and Bexhill. Both towns have a population of just over 43,000, and Merthyr's average income is lower than the rest of the UK, while local authority research in 2011 found Bexhill was experiencing an economic downturn. One of the criticisms of veganism is that it's too expensive, but Rikki thinks the problem, between her and her mum at least, is more to do with long-held attitudes.

Research last year by a supermarket chain showed that veganism was most popular with 18-34 year olds, but Andrea isn't completely dismissive of it as a choice.

Rikki clashed with vegan activist Joey Carbstrong on the showBBC Three
Rikki clashed with vegan activist Joey Carbstrong on the show

"I do think we eat too much meat in the world," she says. "I think there's a balance, and we should eat a lot more vegetarian food. Intensive farming is horrific, but fast food is my business. I don't want to get into a debate with Rikki."

Rikki says that she's never tried to show her mum any "extreme" material such as graphic slaughterhouse videos. On Veganville, she says vegans who use such tactics "give us a bad name". She challenges full-time activist Joey Carbstrong's idea of showing gory imagery to the people of Merthyr, saying they might be more receptive to a softer approach. Until appearing on the show, she says she'd never watched anything like that herself.

Andrea says she has introduced vegan options to her catering business, and continues to do so even though Rikki doesn't work with her any more.

"I feel like I'm not even allowed to mention the word veganism in this household," Rikki says. "Everyone goes silent, everything that I make, no one wants to try it. I just think ultimately veganism is a good cause – it should be normal to not want to kill innocent sentient beings. But you're stuck in your ways, and I like people who aren't scared of change."

"I should be able to do what I want and not worry about my daughter getting the hump with me and saying there's no changes being made," says Andrea. "I do use a lot of butter, because that's what I'm used to, but Rikki says I'm old and past it. I make traditional food, especially down at work, I'm serving hamburgers and fast food. If someone said to me, 'there's the same amount of customers there wanting to eat vegan food,' I'd do it."

One thing Andrea and Rikki do agree on is that they can't be the only family at war over veganism. They tell me that, a few days before my visit, they came to an agreement over the amount of vegan and non-vegan meals they'd eat at home, and despite the upset on both sides, they want to work towards setting an example for other families trapped in an ideological food fight.

'Veganism is your whole life'

Up in Shaw, a village just outside Oldham, the situation is reversed – 51-year-old truck driver Dan, who also appears on Veganville, has been unsuccessfully trying to convince his 18-year-old son Tyler into going vegan since he became one six years ago.

"I couldn't see myself doing it," Tyler admits. "He [Dan] does make the occasional 'do you like killing animals?' comment, but he doesn't force it on us. I think if you put it in people's faces and bother them with it, that's when it gets a bit too much."

Non-dairy milk with Dan in the backgroundBBC Three

For all the statistics showing veganism's popularity with younger people, Tyler says it hasn't caught on in his social group. "I don't know any other vegans my age," he says. "Every time I've said anything to my mates about it, they've all said 'no, this is stupid'."

Like Rikki, Dan thinks veganism is less appealing to communities where people are, as he puts it, "set in their ways".

"The problem is veganism is still seen as tree-hugging, middle-class hippies," he says. "People don't like being told what to do, especially here in the North. If I go out on a Friday, I know exactly who'll be where, what they'll be doing, who'll be on the karaoke at what time. It's like Groundhog Day – people like their routine and they don't like things being changed. They see it as too much of an effort to do this."

Vegan dad DanBBC Three

"But it is an effort," protests Tyler. "If I'm out, I'm not going to go all the way somewhere to get something vegan. It would be a big hassle for me."

"There is nowhere to get vegan food round here except Asda and Greggs," Dan admits. "But things are changing – go into Manchester, and it's brilliant there. A guy on Oldham market started selling vegan pies and I posted it on Facebook, and when my mum went to get me some they were sold out. It just shows the demand is there, but people don't realise it. Even local cafe owners have started doing vegan options and breakfasts but asked me to keep it quiet."

Dan and Rikki in the kitchen on VeganvilleBBC Three
Dan and Rikki in the kitchen on Veganville

I ask Tyler why he thinks vegan messaging is failing to reach people like him, and like Andrea, he says he's turned off by more hardline tactics. "It's like vegans v meat eaters," he says. "If you go on Facebook you see people arguing about it. I think people's choices should be respected – if I say I don't want to go vegan, I don't want someone showing me a video of something getting killed. But I do get that they're using the shock factor to make people think about it."

While Dan and Tyler's relationship is less fiery than Rikki and Andrea's, the non-vegans share the feeling that this is much more than just a diet.

"It's your whole life," Tyler tells Dan. "With you, it's not like you just carried on as you are. Everything you do is concentrated on being vegan."

For Andrea, Rikki's devotion is even harder to handle: "I feel it's either go vegan," she says, "or lose my daughter."

Veganville is on BBC iPlayer now