The Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge starts this Monday, so it’s as good a time as any to ask the question: Can meat be part of a local diet if you’re on a budget?
The pedantic ex-vegetarian in me is desperate to point out that if you are really serious about cutting costs, a veggie meal a couple of times a week (or more) is a great idea. But most people do prefer to have meat at dinner sometimes. Many Americans like to have it a lot.
So is locally raised meat out of reach of the average person, or is it an affordable luxury? Well, I can only speak for what’s available in my neck of the woods, but my experiences have been very encouraging.
What you find will depend on how much research you’re willing to do. At the very basic no-effort level, you’ll probably be able to find meat raised and packaged in your state by large industrial-style producers. It’ll cost exactly what you’re used to paying--very little--because it’s a commodity. In Georgia, where I am, there’s local chicken as far as the eye can see. And you can bet there’s lots of country ham, bacon, and pork breakfast sausage made here.
But if you’re like me, you’d like to know a little bit more about the way your food was raised. You want sustainability and accountability. This is true localism: the desire to know the farmer, learn what the animals are fed on, and maybe even visit the pasture where the animals are raised.
My first step toward this type of localism was a big one. I saw an ad in the state Department of Agriculture newspaper for half or whole free-range pigs, to be reserved in advance and picked up at a processing facility. I called the seller and found that if we did most of the cutting ourselves, the meat would be about $1.50 a pound. (It’s a little more if you want the butcher to chop everything up and vac-pac it.) Think about that dollar amount for a moment. Sure, it includes the bones, but it also includes everything from the hams to the tenderloins, plus all the bacon and sausage in between. It’s an incredible value, and worth learning a bit of charcuterie for.
And learn we did. We bought a couple of books, a DVD, and a few bucks’ worth of equipment, and suddenly our back porch was converted into an artisanal meat shop. Our first cuts looked like hell, but it was fine because it was our meat. We filled both of our freezers to the brim, cured big slabs of bacon, and brined an 18-pound ham.
Once you’ve parceled up one carcass, the second is a breeze. Soon--luckily, after we’d eaten a few of the larger chunks of pork that were taking up space in the freezer--we spotted an ad for whole Katahdin lambs, cleaned but not cut up, for about $4.50 a pound. Again, recall how much lamb chops and legs go for and you’ll see that it’s a breathtakingly good price. Oh, and I forgot to mention: The farmer delivered it to our house.
I know not everyone has access to as much freezer space as we do. Infrastructure like that costs money, and it takes up valuable space. Everyone has friends and colleagues, though. In a perfect world, I’d like to see church groups, workplace departments, playgroup mommies, poker buddies, and gardening clubs going in together on large meat purchases. Buy it, bring it home, divvy it up. Get together and learn how to cure bacon (it’s a lot easier than you think!). Help each other save money, and at the same time you’ll be eating meat that’s far better than anything you can get from the grocery.
Let me amend that: Almost anything. My friend Will Harris of White Oak Pastures sells his pasture-fed ground beef at Publix for $6.99 a pound. It’s a little bit costlier than most hamburger, sure, but it’s much leaner, much better quality (all the good cuts are in there!) and much more full-flavored. It’s almost like bison in its complexity.
If you are able to join a food buying club (which generally involves a one-time membership cost; it’s $25 at the one I’ve joined) you may even be able to get pastured beef at close to mainstream prices. How does $4.75 a pound strike you? You order it online and like magic, it appears at the designated pickup point. It’s an excellent shopping method for busy families.
Poultry tends to be cheaper than other meats when it’s raised at factory farms, but it is usually significantly more expensive when raised conscientiously and purchased locally. Why? There’s no volume discount for buying a large chunk of meat at once. Chickens are petite. Quail (one of our local specialties) are even more so. They cost much more than regular grocery poultry because the processing is relatively involved for the amount of meat you get.
There’s a thrifty way to buy and use this kind of meat, though. Instead of buying individual parts at premium prices the way you’re used to doing (have you seen what they’re charging for mealy, pathetic industrial chicken breast?), buy a whole bird and try to get a minimum of three meals out of it. For our family of two, purchasing a hypothetical duck, it works like this: Day one is roast duck with potatoes. Day two is duck soup made from the picked carcass. Day three is a Thai curry made with the leftover duck meat we picked off.
So even if this hypothetical duck sets us back $20 or more, it amortizes out to a fairly small cost per meal.
If you live in a coastal or riverine area, local fish and shellfish may be an especially cost-conscious choice for you. We can get excellent blue crab and shrimp from Savannah, but it’s still spendy. We do have great access to river fish, though. Most of what’s available in the store is farmed catfish (around $2.99 a pound) or rainbow trout (a tad more).
If you want wild fish in an area like ours, the best option is to learn how to use a fishing pole--a piece of equipment whose price, at a basic level, isn’t much more than what you’d pay for a steak in a restaurant. Fishing is pleasurable and often productive at the same time. It’s an outdoor activity you can do with friends or family, and it’s especially beneficial because it helps children learn where healthy food comes from.
Most of the year we can snag a few crappie or bream, not to mention the occasional river cat. But this spring we learned to go out when the white bass are spawning on the Oconee River. The catches have been fantastic, and the fish is especially high quality. My fiancé, bless his heart, has probably cleaned around 100 fish in the last several weeks. We’ve eaten plenty, but we’ve also socked away many freezer bags for the weeks and months ahead.
The best part about it? It fits especially well into a penny-wise local diet, because it comes from a spot just a few mile away and costs absolutely nothing.
Jamie S. lives in rural Georgia and writes 10 Signs Like This, a blog that's part gardening journal, part cookbook, part sustainable lifestyle, and part short attention span.