I care about the cost of the food I buy. They don't call me The Frugalista for nothing. But I also care about feeding my family a healthful diet, and about being socially responsible with my shopping.
All these concerns come to a head with one food: meat.
On the social responsibility side, I don't want to buy from a factory farm like those depicted in the documentary "Food, Inc.," as abusing animals and spewing toxins into the environment.
The most responsible — and cheapest — solution would be to go without meat entirely.
But my family doesn't want to go without. Instead, I cut back on the meat I serve, and put the savings toward bulk meat purchases.
My household split a side of beef with my parents, and we found that we both improved the quality of the meat on our table and saved money at the same time. Other families who took the bulk-meat plunge report the same double-win.
Ed and Leah Payne, of Niles, Ill., paid $650 for a side of beef this year — about $4.20 per pound of hormone-free, antibiotic-free beef. That was more than they would usually pay for ground beef, which made up about half the meat. But because the cost is the same for every cut, Ed said, "you're paying $4 a pound for steak and roast, and that's not as easy to come by at that price."
The Paynes found their provider on Craigslist. They drove halfway to his Michigan farm to meet up and exchange money for meat.
I bought my beef for about $3.15 a pound from a nice fellow in Wisconsin named Lars, whom I found by word of mouth. Lars is not certified organic, nor are his cattle 100 percent grass-fed, but he doesn't use hormones or antibiotics (unless the cattle get sick), and I liked the caring way he spoke about his small herd.
As a bargain hunter, I usually buy conventional meat at the grocery store only when the price sinks to $1.99 a pound or less. But I have trouble finding antibiotic-free, hormone-free beef for less than $6 a pound — and that's just the hamburger. By buying in bulk, I was able to afford steaks as well as burgers.
We had to foot the cost of an extra freezer to store our meat. However, I calculated that we saved about enough on the meat to cover the cost of the freezer. Compared with buying hormone-free, antibiotic-free meat at farmers-market or grocery-store prices, our savings was more than $300.
I can't guarantee that you'll find a farmer as affordable (or as affable) as Lars; an online search revealed some growers selling beef for more and some for less. A great place to look is the website eatwild.com, which lists farms selling grass-fed beef by state.
Comparing prices can be confusing because farmers give the price in "hanging weight" (the weight of the carcass before butchering). Your final price per pound will depend on the cuts you choose, said Michelle Dietzler, who raises cattle in Elkhorn, Wis.
Her customers pay $4.05 per pound hanging weight for a side, which translates to around $6 a pound when it's ready to go in your freezer. The prices I quoted for my purchase and the Paynes' were for packaged meat.
Dietzler Farms takes orders year-round, and usually delivers a half or whole carcass within a month after it's ordered. But some smaller farms say they need orders as long as 18 months in advance.
Carrie Kirby is a mom and the self-proclaimed Frugalista. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
5 steps for buying meat in bulk
1. Buy a chest freezer. Used is fine, as long as it's not so inefficient that it drives up your electricity bill. Stick a thermometer in there to make sure it's maintaining the proper temperature before entrusting it with a large amount of meat. And before you buy, make sure you have a reliable power supply for a freezer.
2. Find a seller. Try EatWild.com or Craigslist.org, or ask at your farmer's market.
3. Understand the price. If you are quoted a "hanging weight" price, know that the final price of the packaged meat will be around 30 percent higher. Ask if there is a slaughter fee, delivery fee or any other extras.
4. Arrange for meat pickup or delivery.
5. Fire up the grill!
Buy in bulk to save and put healthier meat on the table
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