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It's Time to Talk Turkey: Sustainable Options for Your Thanksgiving Meal

How to choose the best turkey for your household for Thanksgiving.

Turkey is king at the Thanksgiving table. It is the main dish that represents the entire holiday. Because we are concerned with the connection between food and fuel here at Sustainable America, we have tried to explain the labeling of your options in order to help you make the most informed decision about your holiday bird. That may mean very different things in different parts of the country, and we certainly understand that some options are more expensive and may not work for every budget. Choosing a locally-raised turkey is a good start in most cases!

The turkey is one part of the Thanksgiving feast where going local is likely to require a bit more forethought, but it’s well worth it. There are many delicious alternatives to the supermarket turkey that has often traveled far from its factory farm to your table.

For example, if you want a historically accurate Thanksgiving, heritage turkeys are closer to what our forefathers actually ate on Thanksgiving. These birds are descended from early domesticated turkeys and have leaner bodies and better flavor. They also tend to be free-range, allowed to grow to a healthy size and maturity, and typically come from small farms with sustainable practices. Heritage turkeys are more expensive than the average supermarket bird, and demand for them at Thanksgiving is high, so plan ahead.

Local Harvest is a great resource for finding any local ingredient, but they have a special turkey page up right now that allows you to enter your zip code and find turkeys from within 100 miles. From heritage turkeys to local chickens, there are lots of ways to celebrate a tasty, local choice. Our graphic and text below outlines some of the options available for your holiday bird.

Heritage turkeys may or may not be organic or free-range, or any of the labels discussed below, but generally these turkeys are thought to be more humanely raised on small farms and should be purchased locally if possible. They are famous for being juicier and having better flavor than conventional turkeys, which puts them in high demand at Thanksgiving. Plan ahead to reserve a heritage turkey. They are more expensive than the average supermarket bird, so if you're on a tight budget these may not be the best option.

The USDA requires birds sold with the organic label be free-range, antibiotic free, and fed a 100 percent organic diet that has not been treated with pesticides.

To be certified naturally grown, farmers don't use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified organisms.

This is a tricky one. There is no USDA or FDA regulation of this label. The USDA defines the "natural" label as, "A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product." Natural turkeys are usually cheaper than organic, but you will need to read the label to find out if the bird you're considering is antibiotic-free, free-range, and/or raised on a vegetarian diet. FYI: The USDA has not approved the use of hormones in poultry production, so ALL poultry products sold with the USDA seal are hormone-free.

The free-range label means the producer must demonstrate to the USDA that the bird has been allowed access to the outdoors. This does not mean the bird ever actually went outside, and does not guarantee humane treatment. Free-range does not necessarily mean organic.

All of the above options are more expensive than the typical factory-farmed supermarket turkey, but a couple of local chickens tend to be cheaper than a local turkey, and make for a smaller carbon footprint. It takes 13 units of fossil fuel to produce a single unit of turkey protein; for broiler chickens, on the other hand, the ratio is just 4:1.

Meat takes much more energy to produce than plant-based foods. In fact, it has been calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent, it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan to a Prius.

The main idea here is that mindful eating does require research, and what better time to practice mindful eating than a holiday based upon giving thanks? Having a relationship with your local farmer can give you a better idea of what goes into your food, and build a stronger connection to your community.

We're urging the GOOD community to resist the urge to volunteer around the holidays—the time of year when food banks and soup kitchens have more helping hands than they need. Join us in volunteering smarter and commit to serving on a day the need is far greater.

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