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The Thanksgiving Feast Is Getting Cheaper

For a supermarket to look clean, fresh, and full, a complex equation needs to be constantly balanced. Food needs to be grown on time, shipped on a deadline, and purchased wholesale at the peak of perfection. If any piece doesn’t fit, things fall apart. That equation helps determine the price of food which, if we’re lucky, doesn’t fluctuate dramatically. Sometimes I buy overpriced orange juice, sometimes I get it on sale. Over time, for most of us, it evens out.

But over the long term, how is the price of food changing? This week, in observance of Thanksgiving, the American Farm Bureau Federation has an answer: if you account for inflation, a full Thanksgiving feast is significantly cheaper than it ever has been.

Since about 2010, the price of hosting Thanksgiving for the average-sized family of four has hovered around $49. That’s accounting for turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, and all the fixings. Few who host actually get off so cheaply—who buy’s only as much as they’ll eat on Thanksgiving or Christmas?—but the round number is a nice benchmark to compare to 100 years ago. The Morris County Library in New Jersey uncovered a list of food prices from New Jersey in 1911. Here are the relevant Thanksgiving items:

Turkey: $.28 per pound ($3.64 for a 13-pounder)
Bread stuffing: $.05 per pound
Sweet potatoes: $.29 for a 6 quart basket
Rolls (bread): $.05 per pound
Butter: $.37 per pound
Peas: $.05 per can
Cranberries: $.13 per quart
Carrots: $.25 for a 6 quart basket
Pumpkin pie: (milk, eggs, flour, sugar, pumpkin, nutmeg, cinnamon): $.84 to make
Coffee: $.25 per pound
Milk: $.05 per pint

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Back then, the average Thanksgiving dinner cost $6.81; in today’s dollars, that translates to about $163.33, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator. In other words, the cost of putting on Thanksgiving has dropped by more than two-thirds in a hundred years.

How is this possible? For one thing, industrial production has made it easier to produce food and to ship it to markets all over the country (and world). Advanced food production methods have also removed some of the costly risks of, say, raising turkeys that might catch diseases or growing sweet potatoes that could be wiped out by fungal infections. And then there’s scale. In the early 20th century, for a U.S. consumer to get something not grown nearby, such as coffee, it would have been shipped from somewhere tropical on a slow, small steamboat. Today, that same coffee can come on a colossal container ship that races up to U.S. ports where trucks wait to take it to market, sometimes the same day.

This is obviously good for the average consumer. As a result, Americans spend less on food than anywhere else on Earth—$2,273 each year, or about 6.4 percent of annual consumer expenditures, says the USDA’s most recent food expenditure report. Compare the U.S. rate to places like Sweden (12.2 percent of spending is on food), Russia (31.6 percent), and Pakistan (47.7 percent). Say what you will about whether industrial food is good, safe, and nutritious. But on Thanksgiving at least, it’s hard not to be thankful for the (relatively) declining cost of feasting.