Turkey is cheaper, but inflation raised prices of other Thanksgiving fixings

The good news this Thanksgiving is that the price of turkey and eggs is down significantly this year. The bad news is the price of just about everything else is up.

The bird flu swept through the country’s turkey farms in 2022, driving up the cost of the Thanksgiving meal centerpiece. The flu also helped boost the price of eggs.

The toll on turkeys and overall inflation resulted in a record price tag of $64.05 for a holiday meal for 10 people in 2022, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. The average total for this year’s meal tab is expected to be $61.17, slightly lower but well above the average of $53.31 in 2021 and up a whopping 25% compared to 2019, the farm bureau said.

Shoppers might not know the precise percentages involved, but they’re experiencing the increases with every trip to the grocery store. Families having trouble making ends meet are particularly vulnerable as prices stay elevated, and food banks and anti-hunger programs are feeling the strain.

“Even though turkey’s down, the overall food price inflation is up this year. You’re going to see people probably spend a little less this year than last year,” said Dawn Thilmany, a professor of agricultural economics at Colorado State University and director of the Northwest and Rocky Mountain Regional Food Business Center.

Overall prices at the grocery store are 2.5% higher, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Thilmany said some of the increases per category are 4% for dairy and 8.5% for fruits and vegetables, which includes fresh and some processed items.

USDA figures in September showed that turkeys cost about $1.27 per pound, compared to $2 around Thanksgiving 2022. The price of eggs has dropped 14%.

“Turkey and eggs are about the only products I can think of that are lower than last year,” Thilmany said.

Farmers are feeling the effects of inflation, too, American Farm Bureau Federation President Vincent “Zippy” Duvall said in a statement.

“Growing the food families rely on is a constant challenge for farmers because of high fuel, seed, fertilizer and transportation costs, just to name a few,” Duvall said.

For food banks and nonprofits, the pressure of inflation was aggravated by the end earlier this year of the emergency increases in SNAP benefits, or food stamps, put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. Erin Pulling, president and CEO of Food Bank of the Rockies in Colorado, said the average family of four saw a $370 drop in assistance per month.

“What we’ve seen at some of our mobile food pantries is an increase of 40 to 60% (in people) over what it was several months ago before the SNAP decrease took effect,” Pulling said.

Hotline calls jump in Colorado

Hunger Free Colorado has experienced a big jump in calls to its hotline. The organization, which provides services and information statewide, normally receives roughly 300 calls a day, said Alejandra Ospina Estefan, associate director of client services.

After the expiration of the temporary increases in benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — SNAP — the number of calls a day surged to more than 500, Estefan said.

“That’s significantly higher than our pre-pandemic number and showcases the need that still exists in the state,” Estefan said. “People are having to make difficult choices right now between buying groceries and covering other bills like housing, medication.”

While the cost of individual turkeys might be lower this year, the Food Bank of the Rockies paid 46% more for the birds than last year, Pulling said. The food bank bought 13,500 turkeys, or five truckloads, for this year’s meals.

The rising need combined with higher food prices and overall cost-of-living increases have tripled the food bank’s monthly costs to $1.5 million from $300,000 to $400,000 when the emergency SNAP assistance was still in place.

Drop in food funneled to banks

Another factor is that the percentage of food funneled to food banks from the Department of Agriculture has dropped.

For example, about 13% of the Food Bank of the Rockies’ provisions come from the USDA, compared to 30% before the pandemic. Pulling said it’s a matter of the federal agency’s resources not stretching as far as they previously did.

The food bank, which partners with about 800 organizations in Colorado and Wyoming, distributed enough food in 2018 to provide 145,000 meals each day. The current volume is enough for 181,000 meals a day.

Pulling said the food bank is fortunate because it continues to see “an outpouring of support” in volunteers and financial donations. “Because of the generosity of the public, we have not had to scale back the number of people we’re serving and the amount of food we’re distributing,” she said.

It’s likely not what advocates or consumers want to hear, but Thilmany doesn’t expect food prices to return to pre-pandemic levels any time soon.

“The reason they’re not going to go down is that we’ve had some pretty strong movement in this country to pay better wages,” Thilmany said. “There’s good news behind that. We’re seeing households do better.”

But people on fixed incomes and families struggling to pay the bills are having a rough time keeping up, Thilmany added.

“There are going to be some sectors that use a lot of labor that are going to have to charge more and we’re all just going to have to settle into a new normal,” she said.

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