I'm confronting some heavy duty stuff these days.
I've been an ambivalent meat eater for a while now. I could very easily adopt a vegetarian diet and be happy and comfortable. In the past few months, as I've learned more and more about raw food and vegan diets, I've tried foods that I might never have considered, and I've developed a real enthusiasm for vegetables. I even like kale. We (mostly me) ate every last bit of our fruit and vegetable farm share last week - every leaf of lettuce, every radish, every snap pea - and loved it all. This is, to my mind, a fabulous thing. The uncertainties of most nutrition science aside, I've never heard or read anything from any purported "expert" accusing Americans of eating too many vegetables. I figure I can't overdo it.
But there's still meat in our house. As part of my search to help our family eat the best food we can find, and to support small local farms as much as possible, I happily enrolled us in the meat CSA program run by Chestnut Farms in Hardwick, MA. I could rave for quite some time about the work that Kim and Rich have done with this farm; their commitment to sustainable agriculture, their local community, and the quality of their animals' lives is amazing. We visited Chestnut Farms' open house last weekend with our kids, and it was almost too good to be true. Beautiful pastures with stone walls and gorgeous old oak trees, happy piglets romping around, chickens with lots of room to strut and find bugs to eat and school buses to keep them safe at night. The animals were clean, had tons of space, and as far as I can tell are living happy lives.
I've heard and read enough from Kim to believe that she's truly committed to taking the best possible care of her livestock. The animals eat the foods that their systems were designed for - the cows graze in the pasture, and aren't forced to choke down corn that wreaks havoc on their digestive systems. The pigs eat grain, not garbage. None of them need the antibiotics and hormones that many commercially raised livestock are given in order to combat all the diseases that come from cramped conditions, unnatural diets, and unsanitary living spaces.
If I'm going to eat meat, I want to know where it comes from. I love the idea of animals being treated well and carefully, and of eating something that's not full of stuff that will ultimately be bad for me. And I want my children to see how animals live on the farm and to understand as much as possible about what eating meat means - including the really quite unpleasant thought that the adorable piglets we saw snuggled together are going to die if we want to eat bacon.
That's part of what's bothering me these days. We Americans all eat too much meat. It's not good for us; it's not good for our planet; it's not good for the animals who provide it. Commercial livestock farming is so resource-intensive that it's far more expensive and damaging to the environment than the nutrition it provides can justify. Anyone who's read any of Michael Pollan's recent work has heard all about it (and if you haven't read The Omnivore's Dilemma, I highly recommend it). We really ought to be thinking of meat as a condiment instead of as the primary component of our meals. And on top of that, one looks at the adorable piglets, the beautiful sheep and content cows, and wonders...do I really want those animals to die because I enjoy a good steak now and then?
I find myself thinking hard about whether I want to continue eating meat, but I know it's not viable for the rest of my family to go vegetarian, especially my husband. His smoker and the ribs that come out of it are his pride and joy (justifiably so, I'll say). And my kids, I'll admit, have seen their share of Happy Meals. We have two dogs, who are natural carnivores, and they need to eat meat-based foods to be healthy. What do I do with this situation? How can I help my kids develop healthy eating habits and learn to be good environmental stewards? Telling them that fast food wasn't great for their bodies didn't make much of an impression, but now my kids will tell people, "You shouldn't eat at McDonald's very often because they don't treat their animals well." This insight was inspired by the sight of a large tractor trailer full of pigs driving past us on the highway a few months ago. The animals were crammed in there, and my seven year old noticed that they didn't look very happy. After learning that those pigs were destined for someone's plate, she took the issue of humane livestock management very seriously. So perhaps that's enough for now.
I don't think my family is ready to stop eating meat, though I'd certainly like us to try to eat less of it. In the mean time, I take some small comfort in the knowledge that the meat we eat comes from a place where the farm is run responsibly, and where the animals are allowed to live in ways that make them as happy as possible. After all, if you're a pig, I'm pretty sure this is close to perfect: