Friday, November 11, 2011

Eco Thanksgiving vs. frugal Thanksgiving

The latest batch of supermarket fliers to arrive at my door included one from A&P that prominently advertised frozen whole turkey at an amazing 49 cents a pound. I remember my dad describing 59 cents a pound as a good price for turkey when I was a kid, back in the 80s, so 49 cents a pound today seemed like a truly incredible deal, and it got me thinking: with all the talk about how much food prices have risen lately, just how cheaply is it possible to put together a Thanksgiving dinner if you buy everything on sale? Three years ago, in a post on the Dollar Stretcher forums, I calculated the cost of my family's traditional Thanksgiving meal—turkey, stuffing, gravy made from the drippings, potatoes, veggies, cranberry sauce, and apple and pumpkin pies, for about 10 people—at about $34. Would it still be possible to get the meal for that price?

After examining all the store fliers, I concluded that the deal I'd spotted at the A&P was the best available price for turkey. ShopRite store was offering a free turkey, but you had to spend $300 at the store in a single month to get it, while the A&P deal had no strings attached (except that you could only buy one bird at this price). Using the estimate of 1.5 pounds per person (before cooking), I concluded that a 15-pound bird would be enough to feed 10 people. Thus, at this price, the turkey would cost only $7.35, and that would include the cost of gravy made from the drippings.

However, Shop Rite appeared to have the best deals on all the other components of the meal. I figured that with a little planning, it should be possible to hit both stores—if not in one trip, then at some point during the week—so as to combine the cheap turkey with these other deals:
  • Stove Top stuffing is 99 cents for a 6-ounce package. This is possibly not as cheap, and certainly not as tasty or healthful, as homemade stuffing—but it makes the math a lot easier if I just assume that the stuffing will come from a box. Two boxes, which should feed 10 people, will cost $1.98.
  • Cranberry sauce, on the other hand, appears actually to be cheaper if you buy it in a can. Store-brand cranberry sauce costs only 77 cents a can, or $1.54 for two cans, while whole cranberries cost $1.99 a bag, not even counting the cost of the sugar.
  • You can get either sweet potatoes or white potatoes for $2.50 for 5 pounds (which would work out to 8 ounces of potato per person). Ironically, this makes the potatoes marginally more expensive per pound than the turkey.
  • For veggies, you can get fresh broccoli crowns at 99 cents a pound. Figure on 2 pounds for 10 people, making $1.98.
  • Lastly, we have the pies. I tried to calculate the cost of making the pies from scratch, as we always do, but I couldn't find sale prices in the flier for some of the ingredients, such as canned pumpkin. (Perhaps the pumpkin shortage has driven up the price to a level the stores don't care to advertise.) So I took a shortcut here and just used the price for Mrs. Smith's Pies: $2.24 each. One each of apple and pumpkin would come to $4.48, quite possibly less than it would cost to make them from scratch.
So, the total cost of the meal—not counting extras, such as drinks and ice cream or whipped cream for the pies—comes to $19.83. This is pretty impressive, especially considering the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) today estimated the cost of Thanksgiving dinner for 10 at $49.20—nearly 2.5 times as much.

However, there's one snag. The ultra-cheap Thanksgiving meal I've described here is one that I wouldn't actually eat, because I only eat meats that are humanely farmed. I also prefer to buy organic produce when possible (though I don't do so exclusively), and I have a preference for homemade dishes (stuffing, cranberries, pies) that don't contain a bunch of unpronounceable chemicals. So this raised a new question: what's the lowest amount it's possible to spend for a virtuous, organic, free-range Thanksgiving meal that even hard-core liberals like Lou and Peter Berryman's Uncle Dave wouldn't turn up their noses at?

This question is, of course, trickier to answer than the first one. My grocery store fliers didn't include organic versions of most items, so I had to do a little research. I found that prices on humanely farmed turkeys, at least in our area, vary considerably. A 15-pound turkey from Griggstown Quail Farm costs a jaw-dropping $149.85 ($7.99 per pound plus a flat $30 per bird), yet Stolzfus' Poultry at the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers' Market offers "fresh-killed farm-raised turkeys" for only $2.69 a pound, or $40.35 for a 15-pound turkey. Although this is less than a third as much as the Griggstown Farm turkey, it's still more than 5 times as much as the cheap one from the A&P. So for an organic and humane Thanksgiving dinner, it looks like the bird alone will cost more than twice as much as the entire meal for the ultra-frugal Thanksgiving.

Fortunately, the markup for the other ingredients isn't as high. I checked prices for these at our local Stop&Shop, Trader Joe's, and at the Whole Earth Center in Princeton. Here's what I found:
  • Organic sweet potatoes are $3.69 for 3 pounds at Trader Joe's. We'll say we can make do with one bag, since there will be stuffing as well.
  • For veggies, we can get organic frozen peas for $1.99 a pound at Trader Joe's. Assume we'll need two pounds to feed everyone, so that's another $3.98.
  • My dad makes a stuffing based around brown rice. A two-pound bag of organic brown rice is $2.99 at Stop&Shop, and we'll probably use about half of it, for $1.50. I'm going to cheat and not do the calculations to figure out the exact prices of the other ingredients (apples, onions, celery, chestnuts, and mushrooms); I'll just guess that it's another $2 or so.
  • I didn't find organic cranberries anywhere, so I had to go with the price for canned organic cranberry sauce at the Whole Earth Center: $2.79 a can. That comes to $5.58 for two cans.
  • Although I did find canned organic pumpkin at Whole Earth, I couldn't find organic versions of the other ingredients (specifically, evaporated milk). So I decided to change the menu to include two apple pies. Organic Granny Smith apples at Trader Joe's are $2.49 for 2 pounds; for two pies, we'll probably need two bags for $4.98.
  • We also need flour, sugar, and butter for the pies. Organic white flour is $1.50 a pound at Stop&Shop, and organic sugar is $1.65 a pound. I'm guessing we need a pound of each. Organic butter (for the pie crust) is $4.79 at the Stop&Shop; we'll use probably half a pound in the two pies, for $2.40.
That brings the total for all the other ingredients to $27.28, and the grand total for the meal to $67.63. This is more than 3 times as costly as our rock-bottom budget Thanksgiving meal, but interestingly, it's not even 50 percent more expensive than the AFBF's estimate. So while frugal folks who are used to buying everything on sale may experience major sticker shock when they try to go free-range and organic, those who normally pay full price may be pleasantly surprised to find that an organic version of the same meal needn't be that much more expensive.

The other takeaway from this exercise, I think, is that the organic markup is much higher for meat than for most other products. With our eco-Thanksgiving meal, the turkey accounts for nearly three-fifths of the total cost; for the budget Thanksgiving meal, it's less than two-fifths. In fact, a vegetarian version of the organic meal—all the "trimmings" without the turkey—would cost barely more than the ultra-cheap meal complete with the bird. Of course, Thanksgiving comes but once a year, and maybe for this one occasion it's worth paying extra to have the traditional meal in all its glory. But certainly on a day-to-day basis, eating vegetarian is the most obvious way to go organic without taking a big hit to the wallet.
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