Not A Drive Through at Mickey D’s!
The American food system is something of a mystery to those living in the United States and, for many, purchasing food at the grocery store is an act of habit rather than inquiry.
Many shoppers simply place items in their cart and move on without questioning the route that the food took to get there. I’m guilty of this as well. We’re so busy with our dayto- day routines that asking questions about our food system can seem time-consuming and obnoxious.
But as we’ve also seen, there continue to be warnings about food-borne illnesses and contaminations resulting from current mass production, which prove that we must strive to better reconnect with our food system.
Throughout the past few years, large strides have been made in educating consumers about the failures of our food system. With the increased popularity of food-related TV shows, websites and publications such as the now-almost-90 Edible magazines across the U.S. and Canada, individuals have started to reconnect with their food sources.
This has created a large demand for locally raised, organic or relatively chemical-free food in cities and towns nationwide, making the role of small farmers and community-supported agriculture (CSA) harvest subscription programs more important than ever. But there are still impediments that prevent this healthy food from reaching the broadest market. For example, the growing demand for farm-raised meat faces obstacle between production and consumption: a lack of local processing centers. Locally produced meat must be processed in compliance with government regulations and, because these regulations tend to favor large-scale operations, many small farms are restricted from selling meat to small retailers and co-ops.
This has allowed big businesses to capitalize on factoryfarming operations that are notorious for inhumane treatment of animals and damage to the environment. Luckily, many individuals are now looking to change that. Small farmers have begun to offer humanely raised, free-range meats alongside locally grown fruits and vegetables at markets, and some Americans have started raising animals for meat in their backyard. Even right here in the Berkshires you can find small farms doing what they can to offer high-quality, humanely raised poultry, regardless of the many hurdles. Michael Gallagher of Square Roots Farm in Lanesborough, MA, recently discussed his experience working with a processing facility. “We took a batch of chickens up to Westminster, VT, which is the nearest USDA-inspected slaughterhouse for poultry. That was a lot of driving—one trip to drop them off, another to pick them up, and it was expensive [$5 to process each bird] and not the same quality as if we had done it ourselves.”
Yet consumers are demanding these meats.
And as this demand increases, the obstacle that Michael Pollan describes as an hourglass situation also surfaces. At the top of the hourglass sits a large number of organic farmers producing plenty of meat. At the bottom waits a large number of consumers eager to purchase it, and the squeeze in the middle is the miniscule number of local slaughterhouses authorized to process the animals.
This “cinched waist” has created a strain on farmers looking to keep costs low when slaughtering and butchering the meat. As Gallagher of Square Roots described, many times the expense of transporting and slaughtering makes the final product much pricier than necessary, forcing customers back to the grocery store to purchase mass-produced meats.
Yet there might just be a solution to this problem, one that has been slightly overlooked.
In her book The Mobile Poultry Slaughterhouse, Ali Berlow, co-publisher of Edible Vineyard, our sister publication on Martha’s Vineyard, describes a unit that can be used in various locations to produce meat for consumption. This rolling slaughterhouse travels from farm to farm, and can be used within local communities, allowing meat producers to humanely slaughter poultry for consumption. Wider use of this approach would help to loosen the cinched waist of the hourglass, making locally raised poultry more cost-effective for both the farmer and the customer. And although the focus of this is currently on poultry, Ali would like to add a unit with the capacity to process four-legged animals as well. So why haven’t we been able to create more units like this?
The mobile unit is held to standard government regulations, in an effort to protect the consumer, similar to those of processing facilities, making it difficult to increase the number of those available. Another reason is that the idea of slaughter is something that many Americans are afraid to discuss, and without the discussion we may not be able to move the needle on local facilities and mobile units.
The word slaughter strikes a negative chord with many who view it as an inhumane act and choose to disconnect themselves from the topic. But as we think more critically about the sources of our food, we must understand that slaughter is a requirement if we choose to eat meat.
By making mobile units available in our communities, locally raised meat could be more readily available, and by purchasing meat from local farmers and CSAs, we can help to sustain our local economy.
And don’t worry: Setting up a community mobile slaughterhouse doesn’t mean that you have to partake in any of the process—usually the farmers who already raise the meat will operate the unit. However, it would lower costs for both you and the farmer, and it would make the meat more accessible for consumption.
Here are a few simple steps we could take to begin reclaiming our local food system:
- Become aware of how locally grown food is processed in your area.
- Talk with local farmers and see whether a mobile poultry slaughterhouse is needed in your community.
- Create conversation about supporting local farmers via social media or host a community discussion about the topic.
- Purchase fruits, vegetables, and meat from a farmers’ market or CSA.
Ultimately, we can learn more about the sources of our food if we’re willing to look, and if we can rethink our purchasing habits, we can impact the way that our local economies can thrive.
The Mobile Poultry Slaughterhouse
by Ali Berlow
(Storey Publishing, 2013)
Square Roots Farm:
95 Old Cheshire Road
Matt LaBombard, is associate publicist and social media coordinator at Storey Publishing in North Adams. Matt is a Berkshire County native and enjoys writing about his time spent cooking and entertaining for his friends and family.