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The Water Impact of Thanksgiving Dinner and How to Dial it Back

It’s no secret that California is suffering from the worst drought in decades. What is a secret is the amount of water that you are about to use when it comes to Thanksgiving dinner. Listen, we’re not talking about all the time you’re going to spend washing your hands between touching the turkey and making the side dishes or the amount of time you’ll send in the bathroom after dinner. We’re talking about the amount of water that is needed to put that bountiful feast on the table in the first place.

We’re Not Talking Paula Deen’s Thanksgiving

We’re going to steer clear of the sensationalism in this piece. If you’d like to see some of that check out the Huffington Post product from last year Here’s How Much Butter It Takes For An All-Paula Deen Thanksgiving. Just as a small teaser – it takes 9 1/4 sticks of butter for her thanksgiving. According to Mother Jones.com, each stick takes 109 gallons of water to produce. So Paula Deen is guilty of over 1000 gallons of water use in butter alone! We’re going to assume you aren’t on board with the Butter Queen and we’ll go with a typical thanksgiving spread.

How is Water Use Calculated?

Before we can really talk about how much water you are using on Thanksgiving, we have to talk about how waster use is determined. You’ll notice as you go on that vegetables have a far smaller water footprint than meats. There’s a good reason for this. Vegetables grow using a set amount of water. Then they are picked and shipped. That’s the whole equation. For meats it is different. You have to calculate in the water cost of feeding and housing the animal as well. So, the cost of producing one tomato is only the water cost of growing and shipping whereas a turkey needs to be fed and housed and processed before it is shipped. We have taken our water usage values from several different sources to make comparisons, trying to use the median number whenever possible and focusing on California based amounts when they are known.

Dishing on the Main Dish

Let’s start out with the main dish. If you are a typical Californian family, you’ll either go with a turkey or ham. Turkey comes in costing about 468 gallons of water per pound, while ham is a more thirsty 576 (if you choose to go with a prime rib roast – the average footprint for it is 1779 gallons per pound!) Mind you, this is per pound. So a 20 lb turkey is going to run 9360 gallons of water!
Now we’ve got your attention, huh! How about cranberry sauce? Everyone has a can of cranberry sauce even if no one in the family likes it. The one can – 1559 gallons of water to produce. Yep, over 1500 gallons for that cranberry abomination that holds the shape of the can.

Sides Are Water Suckers

What about some of the more popular side dishes.

  • Mashed potatoes come in at 2528 gallons for that bowl on the table. To put that in perspective, that’s about the size of an average swimming pool. Add in another 50 gallons for jar or canned gravy!
  • You want the kids to drink milk, right? It takes 683 gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk!
  • Are you having canned corn? Add another 108 gallons per can.
  • Do you have a bowl of almonds on the pre-dinner menu? Add 1.1 gallons of water for every single almond.

Having a Holiday Drink?

Are you having a drink or two? Consider that one glass (8oz) of:

  • tea is only 7 gallons of water
  • beer is 34 gallons
  • coffee only 29 gallons
  • wine varies between 50 and 75 gallons depending on where it is shipped from.

How Do You Dial it Back?

So – what do you do to dial back this potential 20,000 gallon meal? The very first thing to do is to buy local. Locally sourced foods don’t have to travel vast distances over the road and eliminate the water needed to produce gasoline for the trucking industry. 2.5 gallons of water is needed to produce the fuel needed for one gallon of gas. So the shipping water cost of a food can be found by taking the total number of miles of the shipping trip, divided by the average MPG of a diesel truck (13) multiplies by 2.5. Now that cranberry sauce is getting even more water costly as it travels 3500 miles from the bogs back east. The water transport cost of hat can of cranberry sauce is 673 gallons!
Short of having a vegan Thanksgiving with a Tofurkey, this is the best way to cut down your water cost for the holiday. Source all of your foods locally and eat as many vegetables as possible. Need more convincing? Check out these numbers from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

  • Apples – 10 gallons per serving
  • Broccoli – 11 gallons per serving
  • Carrots – 6 gallons per serving
  • Baked Potato – 6 gallons per serving
  • Tomato – 8 gallons per serving
  • Lettuce – 5.6 gallons per pound

To have a water winning Thanksgiving, the key is fresh vegetables and meat in moderation. Cutting your turkey size and getting a 12 pound hen instead of a 22 pound Tom can cut nearly half of your water footprint. If you don’t want to skimp on the bird, replacing the canned vegetables with local produce can still have a huge impact. Keep serving sizes to 8 oz and pile plates high with steamed carrots and broccoli, baked potatoes and a salad with fresh lettuce and tomato. You’ll be just as full and you’ll be saving the environment at the same time.
All statistics were pulled from the following resources.

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