Grocery shopping with Meredith Leigh is a somewhat tedious affair. “I know way too much about the food system not to be careful,” she says, meandering around the outside isles, checking labels, shunning processed cereals, and condemning Portlandia for making fun of people who want to know more about their food. “People should be asking where it came from, and also how it died.”
Meredith is vegan-turned-butcher, farmer, and author of The Ethical Meat Handbook. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where she works on a not-for-profit farm: butchering in house and generally advocating the role of animals in our food system.
High school exposure to horrific slaughterhouses, corporate domination, and empathy for fellow her fellow earthlings had turned her off meat. But everything changed after a trip to the third world—where she witnessed a population whose lives and livelihoods depended on animal protein (every last bit of it).
Eating had gained a new meaning. “We have hungry people in our country and we’re not going to eat something because we’re afraid to? Or because of regulation? Or because of whatever our culture has deemed normal?”
The vegan movement was steadily growing when Meredith returned, but farmers were suffering, the demand for meat wasn’t going anywhere, and animals were still being treated poorly. “I thought, ‘Okay well there’s lots of people making the decision to eat meat, or to not eat meat, but we still have so many problems,’” she says. “People were still eating Big Macs, because they figured there was nothing they could do about it. But there’s a whole other dialogue on a big stage, in a big way, that we need to be having.”
“Taking the life of another living thing is definitely disturbing,” Meredith says. “ But it’s not supposed to be easy.” The first time she approached the butcher block, Meredith realized the most peaceful being in the room was the dying animal. “And I think the reason we freak out so much is because of our egos," she says. "We are confronted with our own mortality.”
There’s no doubt Meredith is emotionally strong. But in an industry still dominated by men, she says physically, it’s a different story. “I definitely have days where I don’t feel strong enough to do my work. But the more you do it, the better you get, and it makes you realize that strength is really in your mind.”
Meredith says people don’t encourage young girls to use their bodies, and be powerful. “I’ve seen people teaching boys to do that: to keep training, and pushing, and working harder. Why don’t we teach girls, too?” she says. But custom tools and a lowered bench aside, Meredith uses humility to overcome the male/female divide. “People are way more likely to give you the time of day and respect you if you’re humble. Instead of walking in and going ‘I’m so awesome, I’m a lady butcher.’”
Meredith thinks farmers have the most difficult role in the entire supply chain. “Costs are high, and a lot of factors are completely out of their control. But things are really going to have to change on the retail end before they can at the farm level,” she says. “It’s like dang y’all, the farmers can’t do everything.”
In an ideal world, she defines ethical meat as a shared responsibility. On the farm, the animal should have a dual role: providing food or fiber, and also improving the land on which it lives. It should also be killed in the most humane way possible. Butchers should use the entire animal in some way, and educate people about rare cuts to encourage efficient use. Chefs should incorporate various cuts into menus in a way that minimizes waste and utilizes the whole animal.
Education and accountability are going to be key to achieving food chain utopia, Meredith says. "There’s no one single solution. Not everybody has the money or the time to do more in the kitchen. But if we all do even a little bit, it can make a big difference.”