A recently published annual survey conducted by the American Farm Bureau Federation determined that the average cost in 2019 of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for 10 was $48.91, a one-cent increase over 2018. Unsurprisingly, that inspired a small wave of news briefs reassuring readers that holiday dinners are still affordable, which is welcome news for consumers preparing to shop for more holiday meals in December.      

But the AFBF survey spurs questions regarding cost vs. value, and sourcing. (Where are they shopping? Was that turkey pasture- or barn-raised?) Feeding 10 people for $48.91 translates into spending less than $5 per person for a dinner with a 16-pound turkey, 14 ounces of cubed stuffing, three pounds of sweet potatoes, 12 ounces of fresh cranberries, one pound of green peas, a one-pound carrot-and-celery tray, a dozen rolls with butter, 30 ounces of pumpkin pie mix, two premade pie shells, a half pint of whipped cream, and miscellaneous ingredients including coffee and milk. The price tag rose to $62.32 with a four-pound ham, five pounds of russet potatoes and one pound of green beans added to the menu.

Anaïs Dervaes of Urban Homestead questions whether those numbers could be considered “the true cost of food,” and assumes that food was subsidized because “there are a lot of subsidies going into Big Agriculture.”

Farm to Table

The Dervaes family has independently owned and operated Urban Homestead on one-tenth of an acre in Pasadena since 1985; the busy urban farm sells produce, eggs, preserves and honey to local businesses and residents through its Front Porch Farmstand. But most people don’t really understand how food gets from farm to table or how much it costs in water, labor and (even organic) fertilizer, Dervaes says; mass production and imports plus 24/7 grocery stores “devaluate the true cost of food.”

Per the US Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service, only eight cents of each dollar spent by consumers on food goes to the farmers who raised it. That is disturbing, and important to keep in mind when considering the AFBF survey’s implication that most Americans buy food at chain stores supplied by corporate agricultural operations, rather than from local farmers who could supply fresher food at a higher upfront cost.

The price of retail turkey is the lowest it’s been since 2010; the average cost for a 16-pound turkey was $20.80, 4 percent less than last year. At local Ralph’s stores, a 14-16-pound turkey costs around $22 to $25, depending on the corporate brand; organic turkeys in that weight range are around $36. (Local restaurants, meanwhile, have been offering pre-cooked turkey for customers to take home to serve for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner for as much as $75.)

At Trader Joe’s, a 12-ounce vegan, breaded, turkey-free stuffed roast with gravy costs $12.99. (If you can find one — they sell out quickly.) At Whole Foods before Thanksgiving, a vegan meal for four (vegan stuffed “Turk’y,” green beans with roasted shallots, mashed potatoes, vegan mac & “yease,” mushroom gravy, and cranberry orange sauce) could be ordered for $69.99.

“If we actually put the true cost of food in terms of fossil fuel and labor, it would be way more,” Dervaes contends. “But you can go to a fast food place and get a meal for a couple cents, and then people will turn their noses up at potatoes or whole apples at a price because that’s ‘too expensive.’ There’s manipulation of the consumer’s mind of what is actually cheap.

“I have an afterschool farm-to-table program with the kids, and we bought mac & cheese from a box, and then we made mac & cheese from scratch. When we broke down the numbers [they cost] within a couple cents [of each other], but the box’s marketing and convenience trick our minds into thinking it’s cheaper.”

‘Finding That Balance’

Mac & cheese is even more popular as a holiday side dish for Americans than gravy, corn, and apple pie, according to the AFBF. A pound-size bag of macaroni (or rigatoni or fusilli) at Trader Joe’s costs 99 cents, maybe twice that for a better-known brand at Von’s or Stater Brothers.

“What I really wish people understood is how many things in the quality and flavor and farming need to be sacrificed to get that 99 cent bag of pasta, because that also has to be part of a budget for a conglomerate that pays crazy slotting fees for their shelf space,” says Leah Ferrazzani, owner of Semolina Pasta on Lincoln Avenue in Pasadena. “So little of that product that you’re eating has anything to do with the quality of the grain that goes into it, or the way that it’s produced; it’s about cheap calories and nothing else.”

Visiting spaces where food is made — whether at a farm or in a shop — helps develop trust between food provider and consumer, and small businesses such as Ferrazzani’s offer a closer view of the real cost of food. Ferrazzani makes rough-textured pasta in small batches from organic semolina flour using bronze dies, which she then dries slowly for 20 hours (in contrast to the five-hour process employed by many commercial companies that denatures pasta’s proteins). Superior nutritional quality and flavor are among the reasons she charges $7.99 per one-pound bag for her pasta. Another is that as a small business owner in a state with a higher minimum wage, her overhead includes higher labor and workers comp costs. (“I pay at the same rate as a company that has a machine you could fall into.”)

Dervaes suggests that greater demand for locally grown produce in restaurants and stores could drive down prices. “We just have to be conscious of what we consume,” she says, pointing out that while her family’s farm can’t compete with Costco or Sprouts it’s within farmers’ market prices. “When I grew up, it was hard to get organic food; now, Costco and even Target carries it. If we can make it more of a mainstream market, then the prices go down. It’s about finding that balance. It’s hard for small farmers to do that; so much produce comes from far away.”

Defining Success

According to an AFBF poll conducted earlier this month, three out of four adults are interested in learning more about how their food is produced; one in three Millennial and Gen X adults are “very interested.” That is heartening for farmers and food artisans struggling to factor their supportive value to the community into their overall business equation. As it stands now, Ferrazzani notes, “the world of food is so disconnected from food.”

“My growth plan isn’t just me getting bigger so I can make more money,” Ferrazzani says. “It’s me getting bigger so I can make a bigger impact on the environment by purchasing grain from farmers who are practicing rotational farming, which then sequesters carbon out of the atmosphere, makes healthier soil, requires fewer inputs overall, and makes the air less toxic. … I like that a mom who has a kid with a really bad peanut allergy can come in and see for herself that the only thing I put on my machines is pasta and there’s no chance for cross-contamination in that regard, because it’s just flour and water. That’s farther than just making something that tastes good, but I think that trust and security in our food system is something that we’re all longing for.”