On our trips to Los Angeles to visit Alex’s parents, we drive down the I-5 corridor. There’s always a stench near Coalinga. The smell used to not bother me much.
When the smell approached from afar, I would quickly push the circulate air button and wrinkle my nose for 5 minutes.
In the past year, we’ve traveled more frequently to Los Angeles, and the smell has bothered me more and more.
I’ve found myself eating less beef over time because looking at ground beef brought up strong memories of the offensive smell.
Very gradually, we’ve been purchasing pasture-raised pork, chicken, and beef from one of my CSA services — Eating With The Seasons — about once per month. We liked the idea of supporting sustainable farming from an environmental as well as animal welfare perspective.
Then finally, a week and a half ago, we signed up for a meat CSA.
What’s a Meat CSA?
Traditionally, I think of community-supported agriculture (CSA) as offering produce: vegetables and fruits. But why shouldn’t the same principles that work for produce also apply to beef, pork, dairy, and poultry?
Because Eating With The Seasons only allows us to purchase meat once a month, we started buying pasture-raised chickens at Whole Foods and the local farmers’ market. We started roasting chickens every other week and slowly moved towards eating a chicken once a week.
At that point, we asked ourselves, why don’t we sign up for a CSA?
There is a local ranch that provides grass-fed beef and pasture-raised chicken and pork.
How Our Meat Membership Works
The “Meat CSA” we joined differs from the “Produce CSA”. Instead of paying for a weekly subscription over a quarter or a year, we buy “credits” upfront. Then, we trade the credits to buy meat.
1 credit = 1 dollar
There’s no limit on how many credits we can buy. We continue to spend our credits until they are gone at which point we can purchase more credits.
Why sign up for a meat CSA?
It seems like a naive question. Why not?
But think about what it means to raise livestock compared to growing produce.
When a farmer grows fruits and vegetables, she harvests them when the fruits and vegetables are ripe. They wait for nobody. Flash frozen vegetables — even the most premium quality — end up with a soggy texture and discoloration.
Yet, the ranch is not in a hurry.
All the meat they sell is already vacuum packed and frozen. They could store that meat for months and not worry about it going bad (except for freezer burn).
You might think that the benefit of a meat CSA is the environmentally friendly practices and kindness towards animals. And yes, those are what got me interested in pasture-raised animals.
But why sign up?
After all, I can simply buy from the same farmer through the farmers’ market or Whole Foods with zero commitment.
The real underlying benefit is special deals I get as a member of the CSA.
Our particular meat CSA, Markegard Family Grass-Fed, has member-only discounts and cuts. For example, they provide discounts on stock bones (which you can you to make beef broth) and only offer offal to members. The stock bones are discounted from $3.99/pound to $1.99/pound.
Our whole chickens cost approximately $23 each.
They’re on the smaller side compared to regular chickens sold in conventional grocery stores. Usually, they weigh about 2-3 pounds rather than 4-5 pounds.
It’s three times the cost of a chicken we buy at Trader Joe’s. And five times the cost of chicken at Costco.
We’re part-time vegetarians now.
Because the meat costs so much more, we balance out the cost of pasture-raised chickens by eating significantly less meat. We replaced the rest of our protein needs with tofu and other soy-based foods. Considering we can get a tub of tofu for $3, it has saved us money and helped us cut down our meat consumption.
We’re also strategic.
We love buying a whole chicken because we can eat every part of it. I enjoy the dark meat the most and tackle that first. I definitely savor the crispy skin. And we either eat the breast meat with gravy or I like to shred it and use it in another dish. For example, we use breast meat for chicken pot pie and stirfries. Then we make chicken broth from the bones and leftovers.
I do an excellent job squeezing every last drop out of each chicken from the meat to the carcass.
Check out our Extra Umami Beef Broth recipe. We often get the bones from our meat CSA to make this very delicious broth.
Enough about the money. More importantly, how does it taste?
High-quality chickens taste gamier.
My guess is that because they are able to roam around the fields and get more exercise, their meat is firmer.
Alex complains that he can’t eat the Costco rotisserie chickens anymore.
“They taste weird,” he says. “They have a funny taste.”
We used to purchase two rotisserie chickens a week because they are convenient (already cooked) and great value (how are they so cheap?).
I’ve never noticed that the chickens have a weird flavor. But I definitely taste the difference. Our pasture-raised chickens are much more flavorful and the texture is not mushy.
The time I became a vegetarian for a year.
During policy debate in college, the topic of the year was on the U.S.’s agricultural policies. I learned about CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). It was stomach-turning to learn how animals are treated when they are intensively farmed and the conditions in which farmers raise broiler chickens.
Reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma 4 years ago also didn’t help.
Nonetheless, if you took away the benefits like the discounted prices, we would still choose pasture-raised chickens. We feel healthier when we’re eating a happy chicken.
We care about how well the chickens were treated for selfish reasons.
Healthy chickens mean healthy people:
- Less risk of salmonella food poisoning = good for public health.
- Sustainable practices to raise livestock = good for the environment’s health.
- Cutting back on meat consumption and only eating the highest quality meat = good for our health.
No, we’re not PETA activists.
I don’t believe in proselytizing others. The only time we mention what we eat is when friends come over to dinner. We generously share our pasture-raised chicken every Sunday night when we host our weekly Sunday night dinners. We make sure to mention the chicken so they appreciate the meal more. Knowing there’s a story behind the food heightens everybody’s enjoyment.
I’m not telling you what to eat and what not to eat.
We surely are not “clean” or “pure” eaters. We eat tamales and steaks and dumplings which are without doubt made with grain-fed, intensively farmed animals.
But we’re chipping away at it slowly.
Most importantly, it is a worthwhile exercise to think critically about what you are eating. If we decided we’d rather go back to traditional meat tomorrow, it would be a guilt-free decision because at least we’ve thought through our options.
So, what do you think?
Are you ready to try a pasture-raised chicken? If you already consume pasture-raised chickens, do you find they taste any different than conventionally grown chickens? Or is this all in my head?
On the Meat CSA Farm
They are excellent at marketing. Wow! Markegard Family Grass-Fed has a giant banner in front of their booth at the farmers’ market. The banner contains 3 bold silhouettes of a chicken, a cow, and a pig so you can identify them from far away.
They also set up an additional stand next to their booth at the farmers’ market where they provide toy lassos for kids, haystacks, and a book signing. I’m impressed by their business know-how.
I have to apologize to my friend Anna de Roo. We used to hang out daily together in high school. Anna was a vegetarian and became a vegan because she was concerned about animal welfare. I used to tease and question her, far too much, about not eating meat.
We’re out of touch now. But if I ever see her again, I’d surely thank her. She taught me a lot about battery hens and how cruelly they are treated. More than a decade later, I finally care. So thanks, Anna, for your wisdom. I’m finally listening.