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Taste of the holidays: Uncle Sam racks up a turkey bill

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Turns out the federal government has a hankering of its own for turkey on Thanksgiving Day.

In fact, since 2010, the government has spent more than $64 million purchasing turkey, most of the birds going to feed members of the armed forces.

"Providing the Thanksgiving meal and all holiday meals is important as we want to provide a taste of home to those who are deployed," said Michelle McCaskill, a spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA).

Although the food items are available to personnel year round, the Pentagon makes a greater effort to get traditional holiday dishes and trimmings onto troops' plates. The DLA estimates it will deliver 2,500 whole birds equaling about 70,000 pounds of turkey, along with 55,000 pounds of beef, 29,000 pounds of sweet potatoes and 20,000 pies to those serving in Afghanistan this Thanksgiving.

"I've been deployed for the last two Thanksgivings," Brig. Gen. Steven Shapiro said in a statement. "When you're away from home the people around you become your family. Sitting for Thanksgiving Dinner is a huge morale-booster and really gives you a sense of home."

The vast majority of the government's purchases of turkeys come from North Carolina-based Butterball, a top turkey producer that estimates it produces one out of every five of the birds eaten on tables in the U.S.

Butterball declined to comment, including providing exact numbers on how many turkeys it produces or sells to the national government.

Since 2010, spending records show the government as a whole has bought an estimated $41 billion in food items. The vast majority of the items are bought from American-owned companies, but the Defense Department itself faces certain challenges in keeping troops fed overseas.

The military buys all food from the U.S. except fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh dairy and bread, Ms. McCaskill said, which would spoil before it reached forward deployed mess halls.

So for personnel in Afghanistan, food must be purchased from nations closer to the theater of operations. Fruits and vegetables come from Dubai; dairy from Baku, Azerbaijan or Bahrain; and bread is baked locally, she said.

Some of the turkey bought by the Defense Department goes to military base commissaries. But just this past month, the department floated the idea of closing commissaries nationwide in an attempt to save money, a potential move that's unpopular with many members of the military.

In addition to turkey, however, vegetarian and vegan options are also expanding, said Seth Tibbott, the president and founder of Turtle Island Foods. The company produces Tofurky, a tofu-based meat alternative.

This week, the company will begin shipping their items to commissaries around the country, though they won't be available for purchase until December.

"The military is a reflection basically of the American populace," he said. "We've had calls from military personnel before and we've sent them product."

The percentage of Americans who choose not to eat meat or try to reduce meat in their diet is growing, Mr. Tibbott said, and options for the military have grown as well including vegetarian MREs.

The Tofurky jerky has been a hit among service members, and many will get the Tofurky roast with gravy for the holidays, Mr. Tibbott said. By next year, the company expects to be selling as many as 5,000 units to the commissaries.

After the Pentagon, the second largest government turkey purchaser is the Justice Department — specifically the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which provides meals for the nation's prison population. Feeding the nation's inmates, estimated at between 1.5 and 2 million individuals, has cost roughly $583 million since 2010, according to federal spending records.

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