Rising food costs take a bite out of Thanksgiving dinner

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In early November, Hays Culbreth’s mother sent out a poll to some family members. She said she could only afford to make two parties for their group of 15 this Thanksgiving and asked them each to vote for their favorite.

Culbreth suspects green beans and macaroni and cheese will do, but his favorite—a sweet potato casserole with a brown sugar crust—won’t.

“If you’re talking about Thanksgiving being ruined,” joked 27-year-old Culbreth, a financial planner from Knoxville, Tennessee.

Americans are bracing for a costly Thanksgiving this year, with double-digit percentage increases in the price of turkey, potatoes, stuffing, canned pumpkin and other staples. The US government estimates food prices will rise 9.5% to 10.5% this year; historically, they have only risen 2% per year.

Lower production and higher labor, transportation and item costs are part of the reason; illness, rough weather and the war in Ukraine also contribute.

“This is really not a shortage. This is tighter supply and there are pretty good reasons for that,” said David Anderson, a professor and agricultural economist at Texas A&M.

Wholesale turkey prices are at record highs after a difficult year for US flocks. A particularly deadly strain of avian flu — first reported in February at a turkey farm in Indiana — has wiped out 49 million turkeys and other poultry in 46 states this year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

As a result, U.S. turkey supply per capita is at its lowest level since 1986, said Mark Jordan, the executive director of Leap Market Analytics, based in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Jordan predicts that the wholesale price of an 8-16 pound frozen turkey chicken — the type typically bought for Thanksgiving — will hit $1.77 a pound in November, up 28% from the same month last year.

Still, there will be plenty of whole birds for Thanksgiving tables, Jordan said. Companies have moved a higher percentage of birds to the entire turkey market in recent years to take advantage of continued holiday demand.

And not every producer was equally affected. Butterball, which supplies about a third of Thanksgiving turkeys, said avian flu only affected about 1% of production because of safety precautions it took after the last major flu outbreak in 2015.

But it could be harder for customers to find turkey breasts or other meats, Jordan said. And higher ham prices give cooks fewer cheap alternatives, he said.

The avian flu also pushed egg prices into record territory, Anderson said. In the second week of November, a dozen grade A eggs sold for an average of $2.28, more than double the previous year’s price, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Egg prices would have been higher even without the flu, Anderson said, because of the rising cost of the corn and soybean meal used for chicken feed. Ukraine is normally a major exporter of maize, and the disappearance of that supply has caused world prices to soar.

Add that to the rising prices for canned pumpkin — a 30-ounce can is up 17% from last year, according to market researcher Datasembly — and it’s clear that Thanksgiving dessert will be more expensive, too. Libby, owned by Nestle, produces 85% of the world’s canned pumpkin – said pumpkin harvests were in line with previous years, but had to offset higher labor, transportation, fuel and energy costs.

Are you planning to refuel on the sides? That will also cost you. A 16-ounce box of filling costs 14% more than last year, Datasemby said. And a 5-pound sack of russet potatoes averaged $3.26 in the second week of November, or 45.5% more than a year ago.

Craig Carlson, the CEO of Chicago-based Carlson Produce Consulting, said frost and a wet spring have severely hampered potato growth this year. Growers also increased prices to compensate for higher costs of seeds, fertilizers, diesel fuel and machinery. Production costs have risen as much as 35% for some growers this year, an increase they can’t always recoup, according to Carlson.

Higher labor and food costs also make it more expensive to order a prepared meal. Whole Foods is advertising a classic Thanksgiving feast for eight for $179.99. That’s $40 more than the advertised price last year.

The good news? Not every item on holiday shopping lists is significantly more expensive. Cranberries had a good crop and prices rose less than 5% between late September and early November, said Paul Mitchell, an agricultural economist and professor at the University of Wisconsin. Green beans cost just 2 cents more per pound during the second week of November, according to the USDA.

And many grocers are discounting turkeys and other holiday staples in hopes that shoppers will spend more money on other items. Walmart promises turkeys for less than $1 a pound and says ham, potatoes and stuffing will cost the same as last year. Kroger and Lidl have also slashed prices so customers can spend $5 or less per person on a meal for 10. Aldi is rolling prices back to 2019 levels.

But Hays Culbreth isn’t optimistic about his casserole. He’s not much of a chef, so he plans to pick up some pumpkin pies from the grocer on his way to the family celebration.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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