Friday, October 1, 2010

Half a Cow

Habits are hard to change. Food habits are especially hard to change because eating is not just something we do out of necessity. Our food choices may be based on so much more than our nutritional needs.

There are some foods we consider “comfort foods” because they sustain us emotionally as well as physically. Some religious practices require the inclusion or exclusion of particular foods. Many holidays include specific foods as part of the celebration.

Different foods are associated with different cultures. Geographic location, weather, and economics can affect food availability. The food traditions we were raised with may influence our eating habits for the rest of our lives.

My husband and I have been trying to make some changes in our food choices. Beyond trying to eat healthier, we have been considering our food buying habits. We were both impressed with Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and with the movie Food, Inc.

Fred and I have been growing some of our own vegetables for years. I started gardening when I was a teenager. My grandfather usually had a vegetable garden, and I was always drawn to the idea of being able to grow one’s own food. Fred grew up with a family vegetable garden and with chickens.

Having a vegetable garden can be like having a little farmer’s market in your own backyard. It does take a little more time and effort to maintain a garden...or maybe not. When I think about driving to the weekly farmer’s market, or the produce market, or the grocery store, finding parking, dodging the crowds, waiting to pay, and driving home, the time and effort required to grow vegetables doesn’t seem like such a big deal. And spending time out in my garden is so much nicer.

I’ll admit that I do buy some produce at the grocery store, usually because I didn’t plan well enough when managing our garden or when visiting the weekly farmer’s market. We try to eat what’s in season and grown locally as much as possible, though, to minimize the miles the food has traveled and the gas it took to bring it to us.

We enjoy fresh homegrown eggs from our little backyard flock of chickens. At present, we have three laying hens, which provide all the eggs we need for both eating and baking.

We don’t “free range” our hens because chickens are incredibly messy and destructive to plants, but we do provide them with a run and access to fresh grass. Their hen house has an opening in the floor with a ramp that allows them down into the run area. This small area under the hen house opens to a larger chicken run.

The chicken coop is portable, having been built on wheels so that it can be moved as needed to provide the hens with fresh grass. While this isn’t as good as free ranging for the chickens, it is so much better than the lives of commercial laying hens. And since the nutritional quality of the eggs is determined by what the hens eat, my family enjoys eating very healthy eggs. In addition to the fresh grass and the dandelion greens we pull from the flower beds, “the girls” also get kitchen scraps. They especially like our vegetable peelings and other food waste, and I like that this “waste” is not wasted but is turned into delicious, healthy eggs.

Our backyard has a lot more lawn than we would like, so we’re currently moving the chicken coop around the yard and leaving it on the areas we would like to have the sod removed. Chickens spend their days scratching and pecking and are great at digging up grass. I also plan to have them “till” the vegetable garden this fall so it will be ready (and well fertilized) for planting in the spring.

Meat is another area where we’ve made some changes. The knowledge of the horrible conditions and the daily misery suffered by animals in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations; i.e., “feed lots”) didn’t change us into vegetarians, but it did change the way we buy meat. We purchased a chest freezer and bought half a cow.

That’s right, HALF A COW!

We bought the meat from a cow raised in a pasture by a local rancher and butchered/packaged by a local meat packer. Not only can we sit down to a steak (roast, hamburger, or stew) dinner with a clear conscious, this grass fed beef is free of growth hormones and antibiotics. And the nutrients in the grass produce meat with healthier fats.

Cows raised on grass tend to be naturally healthier than corn fed (CAFO feed lot) cows because cows don’t digest corn well. They are being fed this grain that they weren’t meant to eat because it’s cheap to do so. They get sick from eating food that causes stomach upset and from living day to day standing in their own waste in a crowded feed lot, and then they need the antibiotics to survive. This is one of the practices that have resulted in the rise in the kinds of antibiotic resistant bacteria that can make us sick.

Beef is “finished” on corn while packed into feed lots because it is supposedly cheaper. The truly remarkable thing, though, is that we’re paying the same price for our meat now as we were when we bought it from the store. And we’re eating a wider variety of cuts, including those cuts that used to be too expensive. The entire half cow is the same price per pound! OK, we did have to buy a freezer, but when factored over the years of its use, the cost of purchasing and running this energy efficient freezer adds only a small cost per pound to the meat.

We still buy the occasional piece of pork or fish at the store. I still like the convenience of buying bagged frozen boneless skinless chicken, but I’ve started buying whole free range chickens from the local food co-op. They are a bit more expensive than the usual grocery store chickens, but they actually do taste better than their CAFO counterparts and come without the guilt associated with the chicken meat I buy at the supermarket.

All of these changes in our eating habits didn’t happen quickly. It’s been a gradual shift that began with the way we think about food, and will likely continue with ongoing changes.  And we're far from perfect. We still enjoy the occasional restaurant fast-food meal.  But sometimes even small changes can make a difference.  It's been estimated that if everyone consumed just one meal prepared from local organic food, we would reduce our national consumption of foreign oil by over one million barrels per week.

Food habits can be changed.  Choices matters.  For us, for now, this is what works.


  1. We are traveling a similiar path! My husband just agrred to the purchase of a large freezer, so we can buy half a cow. I am so excited, since we raised our own beef as a child and I know the difference between pasture raised and feedlock raised beef!

  2. Good for you, if only more people could think this way.