Photograph by Fyn Kynd
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Heritage breed chickens, such as the red ranger (pictured), often live twice as long as conventional chickens.
Photograph by Fyn Kynd

Creating an Appetite for a Different Kind of Chicken

Here’s a conundrum. If you asked them, many eaters would probably say they’d prefer that their food be produced in ways that don’t harm the environment, don’t cause animals to suffer, don’t hurt their own health—oh, and is tasty, too.

But how do you get from that abstract conviction to the reality of a meal on your plate? If you don’t know where food like that comes from, how do you put that kind of eating into practice? And if you don’t know what food like that tastes like, how do you learn to like it enough to eat it more than once?

These aren’t hypothetical questions. Most of the meat and a good portion of the produce that we consume in the United States comes from large-scale intensive farming. Finding low-impact, low-antibiotic, high-welfare meat, for instance, takes some searching, even in large cities. And to go looking for it, you first have to know that it exists.

A project that exists to solve those problems—alerting consumers to the existence of high-welfare meat, letting them sample it, and teaching the food industry how to handle it—is now in its third year, and getting some traction. During Pastured Poultry Week 2014, which began Monday and ends Sunday, almost 100 restaurants in Atlanta, Charleston and New York City have made a commitment to serve heritage breeds of chicken that are raised outdoors, given room to scratch and flap, and allowed to live more than twice as long as an intensively raised conventional chicken.

The week is the creation of the international nonprofit Compassion in World Farming and its US branch, Georgians for Pastured Poultry, which launched in 2011 in the heart of Big Chicken country. Georgia is the leading chicken-producing state in the US, outstripping both Arkansas and the Delmarva peninsula, homes to Tyson and Perdue. It grows 1.4 billion broilers annually, almost as many as China or Brazil, and slaughters 1 million of them every week. To challenge that industry, GPP published a lengthy exposé, detailing how confinement-style chicken farming impairs the environment and animal welfare and undermines human health. Then, to demonstrate that there is an alternative, the group launched the first Pastured Poultry Week in 2012, partnering with 30 Atlanta chefs who agreed to buy and showcase the alternative birds.

“We knew we needed a way for people to dip their toes in the water,” Leah Garces, CiWF’s US director and the founder of GPP, told me. “Pastured Poultry Week makes it fun and attractive to try pastured birds, without making people feel guilty for what they are eating the rest of the time.”

The old-style birds face some market challenges: not only are they significantly more expensive than conventional chicken, they can taste quite different, with stronger muscles from all that exercise and a more pronounced flavor from the different things they eat. Simply taking one home and cooking it in the same way you’d cook a regular chicken isn’t always successful. Thus the involvement of chefs has been crucial: When they figure out ways to serve the birds to best advantage, they teach not just diners but also restaurant workers what is possible.

“When the chefs bring these birds into their restaurants, they’re introducing the idea to their cooks, who introduce it to the rest of the staff, who spread it virally through the industry,” said Shaun Doty, an Atlanta chef with a local chain of fast-casual chicken restaurants who was Pastured Poultry Week’s earliest backer. “This is how you get the knowledge to the tastemakers of the future.”

Each year that it has operated, Pastured Poultry Week has added a new city. This year, that was Charleston. FIG, near the Port of Charleston, already showcases its local ingredients and relationships with farmers; I asked chef/partner Mike Lata why he’d want to engage with a challenging new ingredient.

“We’ve always gone to great lengths to buy and promote local chicken—and there were hurdles and obstacles to doing that, because so many of the mom-and-pop processing plants have been shut down,” he told me. “This was a great evolution for us, because it let us get the conversation about chicken going again, and take the whole thing one step further.

“It is critical to us to have a give and take with our producers, to show that we support them and we understand the nuances of being a farmer. That way, when we go to them and say, ‘We want to start doing this; will you help us make it happen?”, the answer is almost always ‘Absolutely,’ and it was this time, too.”

Of course, chefs aren’t primarily activists; they are businesspeople. They may want to bring challenge and novelty to their customers, but what they need to do is to sell what they make, so that revenue flows in to pay the producers, the staff, the marketing and the rent. If eating pastured poultry was a dutiful experience, not a delicious one, the week, and the movement behind it, wouldn’t get very far. So when I talked to Lata, the morning after the first night of Pastured Poultry Week, I asked him how it went.

“We had 20 portions available last night,” he said. “We sold out before 8 p.m.”

This story is part of National Geographic‘s special eight-month Future of Food series.