Thanksgiving 2021 could be the most expensive meal in the history of the holiday.
Caroline Hoffman is already stashing canned pumpkin in the kitchen of her Chicago apartment when she finds some for under a dollar. She recently spent almost $2 more for the vanilla she’ll need to bake pumpkin bread and other desserts for the various Friendsgiving celebrations she’s been invited to.
Matthew McClure paid 20% more this month than he did last year for the 25 pasture-raised turkeys he plans to roast at the Hive, the Bentonville, Arkansas, restaurant where he is the executive chef. And Norman Brown, director of sweet-potato sales for Wada Farms in Raleigh, North Carolina, is paying truckers nearly twice as much as usual to haul the crop to other parts of the country.
“I never seen anything like it, and I’ve been running sweet potatoes for 38 or 39 years,” Brown said. “I don’t know what the answer is, but in the end it’s all going to get passed on to the consumer.”
Nearly every component of the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner, from the disposable aluminum turkey roasting pan to the coffee and pie, will cost more this year, according to agricultural economists, farmers and grocery executives. Major food companies like Nestlé and Procter & Gamble have already warned consumers to brace for more price increases.
Granted, last year the cost of a Thanksgiving dinner for 10 was the lowest it had been since 2010, according to the American Farm Bureau, whose annual survey of large dinners will be released Nov. 18. But because of the pandemic, fewer people bought for big gatherings, and turkey prices were kept low to entice shoppers. This year, turkey prices are likely to hit record highs, and the cost of many foods has jumped sharply.
There is no single culprit. The nation’s food supply has been battered by a knotted supply chain, high transportation expenses, labor shortages, trade policies and bad weather. Inflation is at play, too. In September, the Consumer Price Index for food was up 4.6% from a year ago. Prices for meat, poultry, fish and eggs soared 10.5%.
Weeks before the holiday feast, home cooks have started shopping, hoping to get ahead of shortages and price creep. “I picture a perfect storm of increased demand and lack of supply,” said Matt Lardie, a food writer in Durham, North Carolina, who has already laid out his Thanksgiving game plan and expects to have some components in the freezer by next week.
For many cooks, the biggest expense will be the turkey. By the end of the year, market analysts say, prices per pound will likely surpass the record Department of Agriculture benchmark price for turkeys — $1.36, set in 2015.
Turkey is more expensive largely because the price of corn, which most commercial turkeys feed on, more than doubled in some parts of the country from July 2020 to July 2021. Whole frozen birds between 8 and 16 pounds already cost 25 cents a pound more than they did a year ago, according to the weekly Department of Agriculture turkey report released Friday.
The price rises are hitting in a year when COVID-19 vaccines and loosened health guidelines point to more and bigger holiday celebrations than in 2020. There will be fewer turkeys on the market, but demand is expected to be higher, particularly for smaller birds and for more carefully raised and processed turkeys.
Kroger executives are anticipating more of what marketers call the “premiumization” of Thanksgiving ingredients, with many cooks shopping for turkeys that are fresh, organic, free-range or processed in ways that elevate them beyond an inexpensive frozen bird.
“Customers aren’t necessarily going out to restaurants, so they are upping their game in terms of products,” said Stuart Aitken, the company’s chief merchant.
Still, plenty of households will be looking for bargain turkeys and trying to stretch their food budget.
“I can buy that this will be the most expensive Thanksgiving ever, but there’s an income-inequality story here that matters a lot,” said Trey Malone, an agricultural economist at Michigan State University. “The rich are going to be spending more on Thanksgiving than they have ever spent before, but not everyone is going to be able to do that.”
Packaged dinner rolls will be pricier because the cost of almost all of the ingredients that commercial bakers use has gone up. Canned cranberry sauce will cost more because domestic steel plants have yet to catch up after pandemic shutdowns, and China is limiting steel production to reduce carbon emissions. As a result, steel prices have remained more than 200% higher than they were before the pandemic.
The heftier price tag on that turkey-friendly California pinot noir reflects a 25% surge in energy costs, expensive delays related to labor shortages and the cost of glass bottles stuck on cargo ships coming from China. The average end-to-end shipping time from China to the United States was 73 days in September, up from 40 days two years earlier, said Katheryn Russ, a professor of economics at the University of California at Davis. And shipping expenses, she said, have tripled.
“All of these dynamics are not theoretical,” Russ said. “We can’t lose sight of how these broader issues hit home.”
Extreme weather has made Thanksgiving ingredients cost more, too. A late-spring drought in the Midwest damaged the sugar beet crop, which had already been hurt by freezing weather in 2019. Hurricane Ida shut cane-sugar refineries in the South. Grape, nut and citrus crops in California have suffered under this year’s drought. Brazil, which supplies the world with more coffee than any other country, has endured severe drought and then a surprise July frost, resulting in less coffee and higher prices.
Even the basic materials — like wooden pallets and cardboard containers — that farmers need to get their crops from the field to distributors are either hard to find or much more expensive.
“Everything you go to order, either you can’t get it, or you shake your head and go, ‘How much?’ ” said Jim Kent, an owner of the 100-acre Locust Grove Fruit Farm in Milton, New York.
Although grocery-store executives predict spot shortages on some items, economists like Russ say there is no indication the panic-buying that was a hallmark of pandemic shopping in 2020 will resurface.
That’s not reassuring to some home cooks, who are worried about not being able to find smaller turkeys, canned pumpkin or the particular kind of stuffing mix they like.
Hoffman, a Chicago resident who works in public relations and blogs about food, recently had a difficult time finding cream of tartar and mini marshmallows. “Even finding cans of pumpkin has been honestly difficult,” she said, “so as I see them, I grab a few.”
As food prices continue to climb, she has to budget more and search out bargains. That’s not always easy when the holidays demand specific ingredients.
“I dread buying vanilla,” she said.