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The hidden savings in organic meat

Last week, my friend John and I went on a hunt for the perfect steak to impress his dinner date. We headed to Rain Shadow Meats, an old-style butchery that sources its meat from local and sustainable farms. The case at Rain Shadow is a sight for sore eyes. Like a museum, I can easily spend time quietly observing the various cuts of meat — whole rabbit and house made charcuterie sit among cuts of beef and lamb. They are the place to be if you want an educated opinion about what to make for dinner and appreciate local meat. They are also much more expensive than a ‘regular’ grocery store.

John chose a ribeye steak for two, which set him back $31.35. I can’t deny that I wanted to sink my teeth into that deeply red, perfectly butchered, bone-in steak, but I almost had a little heart attack. Thirty something dollars for steak?! I knew it would be good, and I loved that it was locally grown, but I most definitely experienced sticker shock.

“There is a definite disconnect between what the cost of food is at the grocery store and what the real cost of food is,” said Ben Friedman, co-owner of the sustainably-driven sandwich shop, Homegrown. “These are not only costs outside of the food itself [such as environmental impact and health] but there is a financial side being affected by subsidies that we, as consumers, don’t understand,” he further explained.

Many industrialized agricultural businesses rely on crop subsidies that were instituted as far back as the 1930s. Today, more than ninety percent of agriculture subsidies go to farmers of five crops — wheat, corn, soybeans, rice, and cotton. On the most basic level (and as a vast over-simplification), this means that the government is supporting large-scale farms through supplemental income. Without these “subsidies,” many large farms would not have a successful business model.

So what does this have to do with meat? By now everyone knows that cattle fed on large scale operations (CAFOs) across the country are not the free-ranging, grass-chewing cattle we see on our local small farms. They are huge feeding operations, wherein the animals are fed an all-grain diet. What grains? You got it — soybean and corn. Both subsidized. Both cheap.

Like Friedman, voting with my dollar and purchasing local sustainable food from farms is paramount to me. I shop farmers markets weekly and have for years, but it is a rare day when I head to the market for meat. It tends to be pretty expensive. Mostly, I purchase chicken from Draper Valley Farms which offers locally raised chicken for $1.99 a pound at my local grocery store, PCC. I’m comfortable spending $10 for a whole chicken that can easily feed four people for a Sunday night family dinner. I use the bones for stock and freeze the liver until I have enough to make chicken liver pate.

I always felt like this choice was a happy medium — not the best option, but good enough. I understand that Draper Valley houses thousands of chickens in one big room, complete with lights and fans, (you get what you pay for) but I accept that as reasonable and focus on the fact that I’m purchasing meat that is locally sourced. And frankly, I don’t really care about the chickens. Outside of blatant abuse, hundreds of chickens in a big room doesn’t really freak me out.

“When I think of some place like Draper Valley, my vision is this huge warehouse-like place where they raise chickens and even though they do it organically, they condense them into one area,” explains Janelle Stokesberry of Stokesberry Sustainable Farm in Olympia.

By comparison, Stokesberry groups their chickens into flocks of 200 when they’re young. As they grow, chickens are moved into smaller groups of 100. The birds are kept under mobile chicken ‘tractors’ and moved regularly to graze on fresh grass and insects. Their diet is supplemented with organic grain. Janelle and her husband employ two workers, and it can take the lot of them an entire day to move one thousand birds. Meanwhile, a larger-scale production can house thousands of chickens and never spend a dime to ‘move’ them. It is this economy of scale that Janelle uses to justify the $6 per pound price tag of her chicken.

Which begs the question: Is it really that important to move the chickens around for fresh grass? If manually moving these chickens raises the cost three times, is it worth it? Does that practice have value? Her answer came without pause.

“When I eat meat, I eat it for nutrition. I want to know it’s good for me,” Janelle explained. “What goes into our chicken is what is good for me. I don’t think anyone is going to get sick [eating a more commercially processed bird], but I think people are going to accumulate toxins. It’s not healthy for us.”

And just like that, she blew my mind. Sustainable meat is about my health, not the health of a chicken. Of course I want all animals to live free of neglect or abuse, but I am very pragmatic about the fact that many are raised for consumption.

I do care, however, about GMOs and pesticides in my food. The large-scale agriculture we’ve grown accustomed to is not only unhealthy for the environment, it is unhealthy for us — the consumers. GMO-dense grain is grown to feed factory-farmed animals, including local ‘all-natural’ Draper Valley chicken. What’s more, large beef and pork factory farms are big polluters. Contaminants leach into groundwater and create nitrogen-rich run-off that enters waterways and encourages algae bloom.

I stopped eating fat-rich GMO-fed industrialized beef and chicken years ago. So why would I eat fat-rich GMO-fed local meat today?

While it is clear that purchasing sustainable meat matters, it is also clear that dollar for dollar, it is more expensive. which is why many sustainable meat eaters are rethinking their approach to a carniverous diet. “We need to eat less meat. We eat too much for our own health and we’re eating more than the carrying capacity of the land can sustain,” noted Chef Greg Atkinson, who is currently in construction on his new restaurant, Marche on Bainbridge Island.

There has already been a national move toward eating meat less frequently, as evidenced by the popularity of Meatless Monday. Friedman of Homegrown reminded me that this is not a new trend, but a return to the past. “Sixty years ago, people could not afford to eat this much meat — you ate meat at special dinners,” he said. Friedman’s approach is also reflected on Homegrown’s menu, where almost half of the sandwiches are vegetarian.

Atkinson, an early adopter of the local movement, is also exercising the ‘less is better’ mantra on the Marche menu. This will allow him to incorporate local sustainable meat without blowing his bottom line.

“Part of it will be portion control because the industry standard is to serve a pound a person,” Atkinson explains. “I will probably serve a half pound per person so I’ll be spending a little less.” Atkinson, well aware of the hidden cost of less expensive industrialized meat, is committed to making a change. “I think that this is a good business decision — a place where people can go and feel good about meat that they’re eating. I think it matters,” he offers.

Personally, I’ve long-consumed a diet more dependent on hearty legumes and grains than meat, but earlier this month I started looking in earnest for cheap cuts of meat to purchase from farmers markets. Thus far, I’ve had wild success with lamb necks ($8/pound from Olsen Farms) purchasing only four and making no less than three meals from them – a tomato-wine braise, a lamb ragu pasta and a chickpea & lamb stew. I picked up a turkey leg from Stokesberry Farm for $12 and roasted it for dinner with a friend, added the leftover meat to a brothy rice soup and then used the bones for stock. This sort of economy is tangible, each meal costing about $4 and often feeding two. The effort is certainly ‘sustainable’. And that is what these choices are all about, really: personal sustainability.

Those who want to eat healthy whole foods, support a local economy, and spend their money wisely, easily can. They only need to do some homework first. As a whole, we are more educated about our food system then we have been in years and more and more people are starting to vote with their dollars. While the road to financial equity may be long, there is a perceptible shift and it seems to be gaining momentum. With a dedication to wasting less, eating less, and spending just a few dollars more, I’m happy to say I have whole-heartedly joined the race.

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