Chicken smile

Paul Soulie, a farmer who supplies meat to Chicago Meatshare. (Photo courtesy Chicago Meatshare / May 24, 2012)

Chances are the grocery store bargain burgers you'll be slapping down on the grill this Memorial Day weekend were probably raised on a concrete factory farm floor and likely never had a name. That won't be the case for 25-year-old Lincoln Park Web Developer Melissa McEwen, though.

McEwen is the founder of Chicago Meatshare, a small group of Chicagoans concerned with locally raised naturally fed meat, but according to McEwen buying healthy, pasture-raised meat is expensive. Her group's solution: buy in bulk.

McEwen and a handful of other health-conscious collaborators buy an entire sheep, cow or pig about once a month directly from a local farmer and then get together to carve it up and divide out the parts--which means not everyone gets the most desirable cuts of meat.

A buyer could end up coming home with liver or neck meat, yet many foodies and health buffs are more than willing to sacrifice quality cuts in order to ensure their meat has been raised locally and naturally.

"There's two kinds of people that are interested in getting their meat this way," McEwen said. "There's the foodies who are really into cooking with the whole animal nose to tail, and there's the super fit people looking for an all-natural diet."

Kent Cowgill, a 40-year-old software engineer, falls into the latter category. Two years ago, Cowgill began experimenting with the fad diet known as the paleo diet or caveman diet, which is meant to mimic the diet of stone age hunter-gatherers by emphasizing grass-fed pasture raised meats, vegetables, fruit and excluding grains and processed foods. It was through the website paleohacks.com that Cowgill and became acquainted with McEwen.

Cowgill said his health improved so dramatically after switching to the diet, that he decided to pursue his long standing goal of competing in a triathlon.

"I never really seriously considered that I could be a triathlete until I started eating this way. My health
got a lot better in just a year," Cowgill said. "Eating real food--not stuff that comes in a bag--makes a huge difference."

The key component that separates the kind of meat that McEwen and her pals at Chicago Meatshare are
interested in from the average package of ground beef at a big box grocery store is how the animals are raised and fed. Cows, pigs, chickens and other livestock are naturally grazing animals that feed on grass and other grains.

According to McEwen, most large scale farms in the United States feed their livestock corn and other processed grains that the animals are not used to eating. Their unusual diet causes the animals get sick,
and they have to be pumped full of antibiotics in order to stay healthy. The result is an animal that is
much less healthy than a naturally raised one. Those large scale farms end up supplying meat, eggs and
dairy to grocery chains, and eventually end up on the plates of many Americans.

McEwen says the trend towards grass-fed meat is growing, but until supermarkets catch on, she wants
to be sure she knows where her meat is coming from. The best way to do that, she said, is to speak the
farmers themselves.

There are a few ways to acquire healthy meat, but they are usually pricey or involve a large commitment
McEwen says. Many farmers sell meat and eggs at local farmers markets for as much as four times as
much as what McEwen currently pays.

Community supported agriculture (CSA) programs like Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm's meat sharing
program delivers meat to several drop off locations in Chicago from a farm in Ottawa, Illinois about 90miles Southwest of Chicago.

The CSA model often involves a large time commitment and a relatively large financial investment of a several hundred dollars upfront in order to be supplied with meat and vegetables throughout the summer.

Although McEwen finds her practice easier than some of the other current models for acquiring sustainable meat, she warns that buying direct from the farmer still may not be the best option for the causal grocery store shopper.

"Buying meat the way I do is only for a certain type of consumer, " McEwen said. "If you're just a normal person, it might be a pain in the ass, but it is a growing market and there are all kinds of different models for doing it."