Where Does that Extra Money Spent On a Local Turkey Really Go?

A pastured bird will always cost more than a butterball, but there's more to value than just dollars.
(Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
Nov 24, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

As has been our custom for the past few years, my husband and I once again ordered our Thanksgiving turkey from a local farmer, via the small, granola-y market in our neighborhood that specializes in selling food grown and raised within about 150 miles of where we live. The order placed and deposit paid, I thought we were all good, but a couple days later as we were walking our dog, my husband suddenly came out with this: “Is it crazy that we pay so much for a local turkey? Sometimes I wonder if we’re suckers.”

This caused pause. After all, my husband is married to someone whose columns here have long focused on the intersection of food, environment, and politics. In short: WTF!? If I haven’t convinced my own husband of the virtues of eating more local and sustainable, what the heck am I doing?

I kind of get it, though. While we’ve generally found the quality and taste of our locally raised Thanksgiving turkey to be superior to your run-of-the-mill Butterball, whether that superiority is worth double or triple the price of a conventional store-bought bird is entirely debatable. As with so many of the choices we face when choosing to pay more to satisfy our social conscience, the high-minded principles that guide us are often competing against a kind of gut-level intuition that has the ability to override our better judgment, depending on the vagaries of the day and our mood. I’ll admit that plenty of times I’ve blanched at the cost differential between, say, organic and conventional flour, and then thrown the latter in my shopping cart—particularly when that week’s grocery shopping has been preceded by some big, unexpected expense, like new brakes on the car or having to repair the roof on the house.

But on a holiday where food takes center stage, and one in which the feast itself is predicated on the very notion of giving thanks no less, it seems appropriate to take a moment to reflect on why we should think more about the food we eat every day, lest our current fascination with “farm to table” simply passes away like any other fad.

Of all the reams of things I’ve read concerning the environmental and social impacts of our industrial food system, what sticks with me most when I’m weighing whether to spend a few bucks more for organic apples are the findings from a Bureau of Labor Statistics report published several years ago titled “100 Years of U.S. Consumer Spending.” Yes, that would seem as dry as overcooked turkey, but what a revelation! About a hundred years ago, the average household spent more than 40 percent of its income on food. By 1950, that share had fallen, but not by much, to just under 30 percent. Today, the average American household spends a relatively measly 10 percent of its income on food.

Relative to our incomes, food has never been cheaper in America. Yet still we seem to carp incessantly about the cost, nickel-and-diming our grocery budget and scurrying to shave pennies off the bill—it’s not so different from how your father-in-law will drive two extra miles to save a penny per gallon on gas. Somewhere along the way, we stopped seeing food as the marvelous thing it is, and started thinking of it more grudgingly as a necessary but unhappy expense. Meanwhile, the hidden costs of our addiction to cheap food have continued to mount: the proliferation of genetically modified crops, the simultaneous deluge of toxic herbicides, or the growing crisis of antibiotic resistance fueled by the livestock industry’s penchant for plying animals confined inhumanely with formerly lifesaving “miracle” drugs.

As we were reeling from the results of the last election, a friend of mine said: “I think this country might be suffering from a bad case of prosperity.” No doubt there is very real economic suffering in America. But in a country as large and diverse as ours, it must be said, there is also the illusion of economic suffering, a product of a culture of desire in which we, as consumers, are made to feel as if what we already have is never quite enough. Finding satisfaction in a well-made dinner becomes harder when put up against that sleek new iPhone you want for Christmas. Food becomes a grudging expense—spending too much on it keeps you from having what you really want. And so we wander the aisles of the supermarket thinking, “Food shouldn’t cost this much.” In that context, spending double the supermarket price for a locally raised turkey does start to make you feel like a sucker.

Thank god for the internet. After our walk, I popped over to the website of the farm where our turkey is coming from. There, amid an entire photo album’s worth of pictures of turkeys foraging in an open field under a powder-blue Midwestern sky, the farmers posted this description: “Several years ago, we bought the acreage across the road with images like these running through our minds—bright white turkeys on green grass doing what they do best: chirp, snort, chase grasshoppers, munch down just about anything (they literally graze, almost like cattle, which is part of why they have so much space) and follow us around like inquisitive, chirpy little kittens.”

I called my husband into my office to have a look. “You’re right,” he said. “It’s worth it.”