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What to Know About Joining a Beef CSA

gwyneth-made-me-do-it-logoMeat-CSAThis past week was an exciting one for our family, as it relates to food anyhow. Not only did we get our monthly CSA produce delivery, but we also got our first delivery from our grass-fed and finished meat CSA. After spending several months sleuthing out the best prices all over town, running from store to store and stingily rationing out portions, I felt a strange sense of relief knowing that I had acquired a 20+ pound stockpile of high-quality meat that I could feel good serving to my family. While we’re in the trial run period in terms of figuring out just how fast we’ll go through the beef, I’m hoping that this order lasts us at least 2 months. That will limit our beef intake to about 1, maybe 2 times a week. When I posted this recent development in our food-buying habits, I got a flurry of questions asking about taste, price, how it all works, and how I plan to to store it all.

Since the concept of a produce CSA is a bit more common, I thought I’d post in detail how this meat CSA works, and answer some of the most common questions I got.

How exactly does it work?

While a produce CSA is a bit more automated in terms of everyone in the group getting the same selection of fruits and veggies for each delivery, the meat program is very customizable, which I loved. You start by choosing a CSA pack that works for you, and then add on a la carte from there. Because I was starting from ground zero, I got one of the larger packs and added on additional ground beef, some sausage, and a roast for the crock pot. You choose a pick up location from the ones offered, await word that the meat has been delivered, and go pick it up. Whereas CSA produce boxes can conveniently be left outside on a porch, the meat obviously has to remain frozen, so you do need to alert the host home that you’ll be picking up your order, but it was a fairly simple process. While CSAs across the country will undoubtedly all run a bit differently, the basic premise is still the same.

How did I decide on a meat CSA?

This particular CSA has been used by several friends for quite a while, and I had personally tasted the meat on different occasions. They were always pleased with the service and quality, and the taste was exceptional. If you aren’t working off a recommendation, feel free to call or email the farmer or rancher running the program, as most have a very open door policy. By being a part of a CSA, you are committed to helping them thrive, and total transparency should be available. Ask about how the animals are handled and how the meat is processed. Some may even invite you down for a farm tour. Bottom line: don’t be afraid to ask questions.

How do I store it all?

I purchased 22 pounds of beef, and it actually doesn’t size up to being all that cumbersome. The meat all fits into two canvas shopping bags and can easily be stored into the garage fridge/freezer with room to spare. If you decide to go in on a cow, also known as cow pooling, you may need to make other storage arrangements, otherwise you should be able to easily store your stockpile in a second freezer.

Did I save myself money?

In terms of overall savings, when compared to buying this type of meat from a grocery store, or even the farmers market when available, I absolutely did. Some cuts were more expensive than others, but it all averaged out to $8/pound. But as you can see, I’m not getting this type of meat for some rock-bottom price that can compete with the conventional beef selection found at the local supermarket.

I’ve heard of grass-fed beef, but what does grass-finished mean?

All cattle start off on pasture, essentially being grass-fed. A cow could never survive being fed grain its entire life. Conventional beef is raised on pasture for a specific amount of time, then sent to a feed lot where the cattle is fed a mixed diet of corn, grain and wheat silage. Some feedlots may even feed their cattle animal remnants. The idea behind “finishing” on grains is that it gets the cattle ready for market in a shorter period of time, and it adds to the “marbling” that is so popular with hard core carnivores. They claim the marbling is what gives the beef that juicy texture, but I can honestly say I have now come to prefer the taste and texture of grass fed and finished beef because of how it makes me feel. More on that below. So grass-fed and grass-finished means the cattle is allowed to feed on grass its entire life and is never “finished” in a feed lot. This is proven to be better for the animal and better for us humans.

I’ve heard mixed things about grass-fed beef. Some say it tastes great, while others say it lacks flavor.

I can personally attest to the wonderful flavor and tenderness of grass-fed and finished beef, and my body agrees, as my digestive system doesn’t revolt in protest when I eat it. Because the cattle has eaten nothing but grass its entire life, this type of meat is less fatty and much more lean. And because these animals forage on grass their entire lives and aren’t transported to a feed lot, they experience lower levels of stress, which makes them especially tender.

Is it really worth the expense and inconvenience?

When determining the expense, it has to be something that first and foremost works within your budget. Beyond that, it’s whether you personally prioritize eating this way. After doing a lot of research on nutrition and animal welfare, the extra expense is indeed worth it for me and my family. Do I want to have to make a separate trip on the other side of town to be able to eat this way? Not necessarily, but overall I see it as a minor hindrance. It really is all about perspective and the value you place on certain things. Will this type of arrangement, and cost work for every family? Of course not, but for us it does and I’m happy with how it’s working so far. The bottom line for me was, when shopping at a conventional grocery store, there is no way to know the source of our meat supply. Meat is not labeled with specific details about source of origin, and even the most veteran meat man would be hard-pressed to tell you where your top sirloin came from. It’s this lack of transparency, and not knowing where my food was truly coming from, that pushed me to seek out a local farmer to source my family’s meat from.

Is it better for me?

While skeptics say the health benefits of grass-fed beef have been way overblown, the bottom line is it has been proven to be lower in calories, contains more healthy omega-3 fats, more vitamins A and E, higher levels of antioxidants, and up to seven times the beta-carotene as non-grass-fed beef. According to CNN, if you’re eating the amount of beef the average American eats each year, which is 60+ pounds, you’ll save yourself about 16,642 calories a year. Even if some of its health claims have been overstated, that right there is proof enough for me.

While this way of eating or purchasing meat is not for everyone, if you’re interested and you can make some room in your budget, I would definitely recommend you at least give grass-fed beef a taste. You may just fall in love!

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