It's Thanksgiving morning and Boyfriend is getting ready to cook a modest feast for four - a fairly traditional assortment of turkey, stuffing, taters and the works. But when I looked at the turkey on the counter this morning, I gasped: It cost a decidedly untraditional $46.
Then I got over it.
We could've gotten a cheaper turkey, but we wanted free-range and organic. The closer we've gotten to our food supply by hunting (and in Boyfriend's case, gardening too), the more we've wanted to disconnect ourselves from factory-farmed food, not just because of some of the cruelties inherent in packed living conditions, but because it just doesn't have the same nutrition and flavor.
And producing food like this is more expensive - it takes more space and more care.
America, though, is enamored with cheap meat, so much so that we as a culture are willing to overlook its true cost, the poor living conditions for animals, lack of flavor (because everything's corn-fed) and a host of unwanted appetizers such as hormones, antibiotics and pesticides.
Up to a point, anyway.
On Nov. 4, Californians overwhelmingly passed Proposition 2, a ballot initiative that would require more living space for veal calves, pregnant pigs and egg-laying hens. The vote was 63.5 percent to 36.5 percent. Eight million Californians stood up for the factory-farmed animals.
Sounds great, right?
Wrong. I call bullshit on these people, and here's why:
Californians have always had the power to change the living conditions of the animals that either produce or become our food. We didn't neet a ballot initiative to do it. We needed to pay more attention to where we spent our money at the grocery store.
Let's consider eggs, which is where we expect to see the most impact from this initiative. You can buy organic eggs produced by free-range hens any time you want. The more you buy them, the more farmers are going to produce them, and the more laying hens will be living in better conditions.
The problem is they cost $4.50 a dozen, when eggs produced by hens who live in those horrible little battery cages where they can't turn around cost $2 a dozen.
And guess what? Californians don't want to spend that much - they want their eggs cheap. The best estimates for the so-called "specialty egg" market are that it's anywhere from 5 percent to 10 percent of the market. That means, very broadly, that no more than 10 percent of egg consumers are paying to support an egg industry that provides better living conditions for hens.
But 63.5 percent of Californians voted to get rid of battery cages.
See the disconnect? I know this is a statistical reach, but for the sake of discussion, let's say this means about half of Californians want egg producers to treat their hens better, but they're not willing to pay for it.
What we know will happen now - and what we knew before the initiative passed - is that production of cheap eggs will move out of state, and all these people who hate cruelty but don't want to pay for kindness will keep getting their cheap eggs, which now will have the added environmental benefit of even more pollution being pumped into the air to transport this crap back into California.
OK, I know that Boyfriend and I are blessed with salaries that actually give us the choice of buying eggs for $4.50 a dozen and a little 13-pound turkey for $46. I know that's not an option for people with small herds of children, and people living on minimum wage. I guess what I'd like to see is a little more awareness that cheap has a price.
If the Humane Society - which backed Prop. 2 - gets its way, that awareness will come sooner rather than later. The Humane Society knows that Californians will continue to buy eggs produced by hens in battery cages in other states; its goal is to get this law passed in all 50 states so that's no longer an option.
And when that happens, then suddenly everyone who felt pity for the hens but more pity for their wallets will understand the true cost of better food.
OK, I know a rant like this isn't your traditional Thanksgiving post, but this issue has been bugging me since Nov. 5.
And on a day that we celebrate all we're thankful for by eating a feast, it seemed appropriate to spend a little time talking about the true cost of that feast. Today, I am grateful that hunting has caused me to think more about deeply my food than I ever did in the first 41 years of my life. And I am grateful I can afford to align my grocery store spending with my values. In this economy, I know that's no small feat.
© Holly A. Heyser 2008