Grilling a Greener Burger for Memorial Day

Kari Hamerschlag

Kari Hamerschlag is Deputy Director, Food and Technology, at Friends of the Earth.

This Memorial Day weekend, as millions of Americans fire up the grill for that first taste of summer, the simple act of flipping over a better burger could make a huge difference for your health and the environment.

More people eat beef on Memorial Day than on any other day—even more than on July 4 or Labor Day. Those burgers may taste good, but most of them come from animals raised in filthy, cramped conditions in industrial feedlots, fed a diet of pesticide-doused GMO corn and soy, and routinely given antibiotics and hormones. The result: environmental destruction, unhealthy animals and a real threat to personal and public health.

Friends of the Earth and our partners at Turning Green are working to change that—serving up a burger that is juicier, and according to taste tests, more delectable than the standard American burger. Memorial Weekend and National Hamburger Day (May 28) mark the launch of the Better Burger Challenge, a campaign to transform the iconic, resource-intensive American hamburger into a force for better personal health, good farming practices and better animal welfare.

Between Memorial Day and July 4, Americans across the U.S. will host hundreds of better burger parties, with help from Friends of the Earth and Turning Green. Going beyond Memorial Day cookouts, the Better Burger Challenge is calling on chefs, and business and college campuses to put a better burger on the menu—for a day, a week or longer.

A better beef burger replaces industrial beef with higher quality certified grass-fed and/or organic pasture-raised meat—then blends 30 percent of the burger with organic veggies and mushrooms. A better veggie burger uses 100-percent organic veggies, mushrooms, legumes and grains—and is even better for you and the environment. To make one yourself, check out one of these better burger veggie or beef blend videos—and get tips here for hosting a better burger party!

By blending better beef with organic mushrooms and veggies, these burgers are not only better for you—packed with fiber, Omega 3s and antioxidants—they are also better for the planet. While trimming your water and carbon footprint, they also support farmers and ranchers who are cutting toxic pesticides, protecting pollinators and building healthy soil.

“In order to improve the health of people and the planet, we need to dramatically shift our diets away from industrially produced meat and support the livelihoods of farmer and ranchers that are caring for the land,” says campaign supporter Cal Peternell, head chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. “The Better Burger Challenge is a simple, tasty way to make that shift.”

You may be thinking: I just can’t afford better meat—especially for a party. Price can be a barrier to better meat for many of us. But with better burgers, when you buy at least a third less meat per burger, it’s easier to afford better quality meat from cows raised on pasture without routine antibiotics or hormones and organic veggies. Organic veggie better burgers are even more economical!

Even at the extra cost, 43 percent of Americans say they want more grass-fed burgers on restaurant menus, according to a 2016 Mintel report. Yet, a new study by several investment companies found that 80 percent of grass-fed meat is imported—hurting small-scale American farmers and ranchers who want to sell into this market.

The Better Burger campaign aims to expand market opportunities for U.S. farmers raising certified grass-fed and organic pasture-raised meat by asking restaurants, universities and other institutions join the Challenge. You can sign up here to make a better burger, host a party or to advocate for better burgers—either a 100-percent veggie and/or a blended version—in your community.

The Better Burger Challenge builds on the Blended Burger Project promoted by the James Beard Foundation. It makes blended burgers even better by promoting sourcing from higher welfare, certified grass-fed and organic farms and ranches that are raising animals on pasture without the use of routine antibiotics and hormones.

The campaign has secured commitments to serve better burgers from restaurants across the country—including Namu Gaji in San Francisco, The Honest Bison in Los Angeles, and caterers such as Paula LeDuc Fine Catering and Oren’s Kitchen in the San Francisco Bay Area. Earlier this year, a dozen chefs working with Bon Appetit Management Company served up better burgers on business campuses like Twitter and Airbnb.

The burgers are already getting rave reviews from some of the toughest critics—chefs and kids. By blending leaner grass-fed meat with mushrooms, chefs report increased flavor and juiciness. “The burgers were fantastic!” reported Bon Appetit chef Paul Lieggi from Mt. Angel Abbey in Oregon, after serving a burger blending 60-percent local beef and 40-percent local shiitake mushroom. “The guests loved and some even raved about them. We will be blending more beef and local produce soon!”

Working with Turning Green’s Conscious Kitchen program, the campaign served up better burgers to elementary school students in two East Bay schools, who gave the burgers an enthusiastic thumbs up, Edible East Bay reported. To make this burger available to students everywhere, the Challenge has found companies in New York and Massachusetts that are able to produce affordable blended burgers from small family farms for school lunches.

Starting in fall 2017, the Better Burger Challenge will work with dozens of Turning Green and Real Food Challenge student members to advocate for better burgers on their campuses. Several students got an early start, organizing events on their campuses this semester, including at Ohio State University and the University of North Carolina at Ashville.

The Better Burger Challenge “provides students with an easy entry point to rethink burgers through an ethical food lens, applying that wisdom to shift campus dining’s supply chain to ensure the health of students and planet,” says Judi Shills, Executive Director of Turning Green. “We’re generating critical demand for responsible farmers and ranchers, creating great change, and having fun while we’re doing it.”

The magic of the blended burger is spreading. Even the healthcare sector is getting on board. Healthcare without Harm just launched a new initiative—the incredible blended burger, which worked with hospitals to serve healthier blended burgers during Nutrition Awareness Month.

Help us transform the food system, one better burger at a time! We invite you to join the Better Burger Challenge this Memorial Day weekend and beyond. For recipes and more information, visit our website or send us an email at

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