The Universal Notebook: A happy bird is a $100 bird

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A couple of years back, we ordered a goose for Christmas instead of our customary turkey. For some odd reason, how much the all-natural, free-range, organic bird was going to cost hadn’t occur to me until I went to pick it up at the corner grocer. Very tasty, but it’s hard to really enjoy a $100 goose.

This Thanksgiving, we have had a request from one of our environmentally conscious daughters and her husband for a “happy bird.” They don’t care whether the turkey is certified organic as long as the turkey “had a life,” meaning it was not factory farmed, raised in a cage and pumped up on steroids until its breast was so big it couldn’t stand up.

So I went down to the corner grocer to place an order for a happy bird. An organic turkey from just up the road would have cost $4.69 a pound. Reluctant to follow a $100 goose with a $100 gobbler, I ordered an all-natural turkey from up the coast for $3.99 per pound.

As it happens I had caught a glimpse of those $80 Thanksgiving turkeys on my way back from Belfast a couple of days before, a flock of hundreds of big white birds scratching around in the mud in a pen on the side of Route 1. They didn’t look all that happy to me, but then maybe, as the local grocer suggested, they had just been rounded up for market and had been happily roaming the farm until then.

Spending $80 on a turkey (about four times as much as supermarket bird) strikes me as something of an exercise in feel-good environmentalism, but if it makes my family happy, so be it.

Food is about my only extravagance. We’ve lived in the same little house for 30 years, don’t go on exotic vacations, don’t drive expensive cars, and I buy most of my clothes at the L.L. Bean employee store. The pants I’m wearing (in fact all my pants) cost 25 cents, so I guess I can afford an $80 bird once a year.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a family of two between the ages of 51 and 70 (that’s us, sweetheart) can eat a nutritious diet on a thrifty plan for $81 a week, on a low-cost plan for $103 a week, a moderate plan for $128 a week, and a liberal plan for $160. I guess that makes us banquet-fed pigs at $200 a week. That’s what I just calculated we spend on food and that doesn’t include takeout pho from the noodle bar and a dollar a day for my morning bagel.

I do most of the grocery shopping and, yes, I do tend to splurge. But, in case you hadn’t noticed, food prices hit an all-time high in February and haven’t backed down much. Weather extremes caused by climate change, smaller crop yields, diversion of crops for bio-fuels, and higher demand driven by population growth and improved standards of living in places like China are generally blamed for the increase in the cost of food. I used to worry about children in India starving. Now I wonder how a young family with a couple of kids can afford to eat.

When I ran into my sister-in-law Marji at the supermarket a few weeks ago, I asked her if she had noticed the increases.

“Everything costs $5 now,” Marji observed.

I checked out her thesis as I did my shopping. Pork chops, $4.49 per pound. Cheerios, $4.30. Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese, $4.63. Fritos, $4.90. Haagen Daz rum raisin ice cream, $4.59. Mixed nuts, $5.99. Weetabix, $5.47. Fresh pollock, $4.99. Yep, Marj was right, everything at the grocery store does cost $5 now.

I do feel guilty about spending so much and eating so well when others have so little, but the whole concept of food justice is somewhat new to me.

On one hand, paying the true cost of food is a fundamental tenet of ethical food consumption. Eating local and eating organic cost more, like that $100 goose and $80 turkey. On the other hand, if we just ate peanut butter sandwiches for Thanksgiving, we’d save money that we could donate to Oxfam or the local food pantry.

Of course, with the drought in the South driving peanut prices up from $450 a ton last year to $1,200 a ton this year, we’ll probably soon be paying $5 a pound for peanut butter, too.

Maybe I should have just ordered the $100 organic bird.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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