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Rising food costs are taking a bite out of Thanksgiving dinner




In early November, Hays Culbreth’s mother sent a poll to a few family members. She said she could only afford to make two pages for their group of 15 this Thanksgiving and asked them to vote on their favorites.

Culbreth guesses green beans and macaroni and cheese will make the cut, but his favorite — brown sugar crusted sweet potato casserole — won’t.

“Talk about Thanksgiving being ruined,” joked Culbreth, 27, a financial planner from Knoxville, Tennessee.

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

Lower production and higher costs for work, transport and items are part of the reason; illness, rough weather and the war in Ukraine are also contributors.

“This is not really a shortage. This is tighter supplies for some pretty good reasons,” said David Anderson, 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 bird flu — first reported in February on an Indiana turkey farm — has wiped out 49 million turkeys and other poultry in 46 states this year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control.

As a result, U.S. turkey supplies per capita are at their lowest level since 1986, said Mark Jordan, CEO of Jonesboro, Arkansas-based Leap Market Analytics. Jordan predicts the wholesale price of an 8- to 16-pound frozen turkey — the type typically bought for Thanksgiving — will reach $1.77 a pound in November, up 28% from the same month last year.

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

And not all manufacturers were equally affected. Butterball — which supplies about a third of its Thanksgiving turkeys — said bird flu only affected about 1% of its production because of safety measures it put in place after the last major flu outbreak in 2015.

But it may be more difficult for shoppers to find turkey breasts or other cuts, Jordan said. And higher ham prices leave cooks with fewer cheap options, he said.

Bird 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 price from the previous year, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Egg prices would have been higher even without the flu, Anderson said, because of the rising cost of corn and soybean meal used in chicken feed. Ukraine is normally a major exporter of corn, and the loss of this supply has sent global prices soaring.

Add that to 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 also get more expensive. Nestle-owned Libby — which produces 85% of the world’s canned pumpkin — said pumpkin harvests were in line with previous years, but that had to offset higher labor, transportation, fuel and energy costs.

Are you planning to fill the pages? It will also cost you. A 16-ounce can of stuffing costs 14% more than last year, Datasemby said. And a 5-pound bag of russet potatoes averaged $3.26 in the second week of November, or 45.5% higher than a year ago.

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

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

The good news? Not all items on Christmas shopping lists are significantly more expensive. Cranberries had a good harvest and prices were up 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 in the second week of November, according to the USDA.

And many merchants are discounting turkeys and other Christmas items in hopes that shoppers will spend more freely on other items. Walmart promises turkeys for less than $1 a pound and says ham, potatoes and stuffing will cost the same as they did last year. Kroger and Lidl have also cut prices, allowing shoppers to spend $5 or less per person on a meal for 10. Aldi is rolling back prices to 2019 levels.

But Hays Culbreth is not optimistic about his pot. He’s not much of a cook, so he plans to pick up a couple of pumpkin pies at the grocery store on his way to the family feast.



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