Tuesday Talks With Dr. Patterson

November 25, 2014


This week many American families and groups of friends will gather to celebrate the Thanksgiving Day holiday. So, it is time for turkey, but it is also time to be thankful, to remember others, and be conscious of the food choices we make.

The Thanksgiving Day meal typically features turkey and this becomes a popular time of year to look at the market for turkeys and other traditional holiday foods. The most recent USDA report on turkey projects that during the fourth quarter of 2014 U.S. turkey production will reach 1.5 billion pounds. This represents the first increase in production compared to the previous year’s quarterly production over the past six quarters. High beef prices are encouraging increased turkey consumption. Wholesale turkey prices during the fourth quarter of 2014 are also expected to be ahead of those in 2013 by seven to eleven cents per pound. Higher feed costs following the drought in 2012 have increased turkey production costs (Mathews and Haley). However, consumers may not face higher prices at retail, as grocers like to use turkeys as a loss leader to get consumers into the store to buy other holiday food items. Consumers will have a choice over abundant supplies of fresh or frozen whole turkey hens or toms, along with organic and free range turkeys, and turkey parts. The American Farm Bureau reports that the average price of the Thanksgiving Day dinner for a party of 10 is $49.04 (Agri-Pulse). This relatively modest price reflects the abundance of food in the United States, where on average consumers only spend about 10 percent of their income on food. However, access to food is a challenge for some.

A recent survey-based USDA analysis estimates that 14.3 percent of U.S. households (17.5 million) were food insecure during 2013. Among these households, about 8.7 percent (10.7 million households) experienced low food security, meaning that “at times they were unable to acquire adequate food for one or more household members because they had insufficient money and other resources for food” (Coleman-Jensen, Gregory, and Singh). About 5.6 percent of U.S. households (6.8 million) experienced very low food security, meaning that they were “food insecure to the extent that eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and their food intake reduced, at least some time during the year, because they could not afford enough to eat” (Coleman-Jensen, Gregory, and Singh). About 19.5 percent of U.S. households with children under the age of 18 reported periods of food insecurity during 2013. The parents in these households were often able to maintain normal eating patterns for their children, even when they were food insecure. However, about 0.9 percent of U.S. households with children (360,000 households) reported severe food insecurity, whereby the children were hungry, skipped a meal, or did not eat for a whole day. Food insecurity is more prevalent in households headed by single women and Black and Hispanic households. Food insecurity was slightly higher in the Southeast. The highest rate of household food insecurity was in Arkansas at 21.2 percent of the households. Alabama reported that 16.7 percent of its households were food insecure during 2013. Households reporting food insecurity generally experienced these conditions about seven months during the year (Coleman-Jensen, Gregory, and Singh). USDA and private food assistance programs do much to address food insecurity. However, long term solutions to food insecurity will require actions to reduce poverty and factors contributing to poverty.

While it is distressing to know that about 14 percent of U.S. households experience periods of food insecurity, it is more distressing to recognize the amount of food loss in our marketing and distribution system. Another USDA study estimates that 133 billion pounds of food or 31 percent of all food available for consumption in 2010 was not eaten. At 2010 retail prices, the value of the uneaten food was $161.6 billion (Buzby Wells, and Bentley). Furthermore, this estimate accounts only for food losses at the retail and consumer level. It does not account for food losses that occur between the farm and retail level. Based on value, meat, poultry and fish, followed by vegetables, dairy, and fruit account for 78 percent of losses. Retail losses are attributable to spoiled foods, dented cans, unpurchased holiday foods, and culled products that are blemished or misshaped. Some of the retail losses from spoilage or damage during shipping or storage are expected and often these products must be discarded to protect other products and consumer health. However, some raise concerns over discarding blemished for misshapen foods, simply because they do not meet consumers’ expectations for appearance. Consumer losses include spoiled food and waste. USDA is still developing estimates on food losses between the farm and retail levels. However, it is known that food losses between farm and retail levels are typically much higher in developing countries (Buzby, Wells, and Aulakh). Food losses between the farm and retail are attributable to problems associated with drying (e.g. grains), milling, transporting, storing, or processing, particularly when food is subjected to insects, rodents, birds, molds and bacteria. Developed countries are fortunate to have more effective storage, handling, processing, and transportation equipment and facilities. However, developed countries also experience much higher levels of consumer food loss and food waste.

Food loss is a concern for society. Disposal or loss of food indicates a poor allocation of resources and it ultimately drives up food costs for all consumers. In a world that is pressed to use existing resources to expand food production, reducing food loss would be an important achievement, particularly when 30 percent or more of production is not being eaten. Food loss also creates environmental problems both in terms of disposing of the foods and from the use of inputs in production. Addressing food loss is an important problem for food and agricultural researchers, but it is also one you can address at home.

So, take time for turkey; be thankful for all that you have; remember those with less; and remember what your mother or grandmother used to tell you—finish the peas on your plate.



Agri-Pulse. “AFBF Survey: Cost of Thanksgiving Dinner Rises, Still Under $50.” Agri-Pulse, November 20, 2014. (Accessed November 23, 2014): http://www.agri-pulse.com/AFBF-Cost-Thanksgiving-dinner-11202014.asp

Buzby, J.C., H.F. Wells, and J. Bentley. “ERS’s Food Loss Data Help Inform the Food Waste Discussion.” Amber Waves, June 3, 2013. Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Accessed November 23, 2014): http://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/

Coleman-Jensen, A. C. Gregory, and A. Singh. Household Food Security in the United States in 2013. Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, September, 2014. (Accessed November 23, 2014): 

Mathews, K. and M.M. Haley. Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook. Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, November 17, 2014. (Accessed November 23, 2014): https://www.ers.usda.gov/Multimedia/

Wells, H.F., J. Buzby, J. Aulakh. “Food Loss-Questions About the Amount and Causes Still Remain.” Amber Waves, June 2, 2014. Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Accessed November 23, 2014): http://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/


Dr. Paul Patterson is associate dean for instruction for the College of Agriculture and Professor of Agricultural Economics.