HEALTH: Despite rising food costs, some still go for organic Thanksgiving

Preparing a traditional Thanksgiving feast for a slew of family and friends will mean shelling out extra dough this year, with a typical meal costing 13 percent more than last year, according to a national survey. For the growing number of people with organic shopping lists, the total will be even higher.

The Organic Trade Association found that 78 percent of U.S. families say they purchase at least some organic foods. Based on prices at Whole Foods Market in Annapolis, those hoping to whip up an organic Thanksgiving spread will pay more than $104.

That’s nearly 65 percent more than the same non-organic meal for 10, as surveyed by the American Farm Bureau Federation.

In light of higher food prices this year, will people stay true to their organic favorites even if it means stretching their budget? Some organic shoppers say definitely, yes.

“It’s not just important for personal health, but it’s important to think about the farmers who grow the food and the sustainability of the land,” said Lila Turner, of Dickerson, who frequents the Mom’s Organic Market in Frederick.

Nearly half of parents surveyed by the Organic Trade Association said their strongest motivator for purchasing organic products is that they are “healthier for me and my children.”

“I don’t care about paying extra for organic food,” said Jennifer Newman, who works at the Mom’s Organic Market in College Park. “There is no price on my health, on my kids’ health. I work it into my budget.”

In 2010, the production of organic items became a $29 billion a year industry, an increase of more than 700 percent in the last five years.

Findings from a national study by the Hartman Group, a consumer consulting company, indicate that the percentage of consumers purchasing organic products has remained stable since 2006, despite increased food prices, suggesting that organic really is worth the extra cash in the eyes of many consumers.

The cost of food — both organic and non-organic — is high this year, relative to other products, due to a steady increase in global food demand as well as high energy costs.

The annual price survey, conducted by the American Farm Bureau Federation, tracks the cost of traditional Thanksgiving items, including turkey, stuffing, veggies, cranberries and pumpkin pie. The results of the 2011 survey revealed the price of feeding basic, non-organic Thanksgiving staples to a family of 10 rings up to $49.20, around $5 per person.

Take inflation into account, and the price of Thanksgiving meals over the last 25 years appears to remain relatively stable. The inflation-adjusted cost for 1986 is $26.22. This year, the inflation-adjusted cost is less, at $21.91.

But Senior Economist John Anderson, of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said this view can be misleading.

“It’s not surprising that when you deflate, it’s not that different,” Anderson said. “But I would be careful of making too much out of that.”

He explained that the inflation-adjusted data simply shows the cost of the meal relative to other things in the economy. In other words, the price of food has increased but the cost of everything else has too.

Michael Klein owns Good Fortune Farm, a small-scale, diversified farm in Brandywine that produces organic vegetables and all natural poultry. This year he has grown 60 all natural turkeys fed with 100 percent vegetarian feed, free of animal by-products or antibiotics.

Klein’s turkeys are not organic because they are not given organic feed, which can cost upwards of three times as much as non-organic feeds. But he believes his all natural birds are much better than most commercially produced birds.

“The turkeys that I produce are much better tasting and a lot safer,” Klein said. “I think the quality and the content of the food is much better.”

Klein said that despite rising food costs, there is a strong market for organic and all natural products.

“Just like people want to pay more for a good bottle of wine, a good pair of shoes, the same principle applies to poultry and produce,” he said.

Anderson, the economist, predicts the steady increase in food costs will soon plateau.

“We’re starting to see these increases in food prices slow down,” Anderson said. “As we get into 2012, prices should level out because the supply side is starting to catch up.”

Stabilized food costs would bring welcome relief to already strained wallets and perhaps something new to be thankful for this holiday.

— Ashley M. Latta, Capital News Service