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Thanksgiving brings smaller turkeys but bigger grocery bills. Average meal cost expected to hit $64, up 20% over last year

Nov. 16, 2022 Updated Wed., Nov. 16, 2022 at 6:20 p.m.

Volunteer David Rosenfeld hands over a turkey at Nourishing Hope during their regular food distribution at Sheridan Market on Nov. 11 2022.  (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Volunteer David Rosenfeld hands over a turkey at Nourishing Hope during their regular food distribution at Sheridan Market on Nov. 11 2022. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
By Talia Soglin Chicago Tribune

Regina Head usually cooks her Thanksgiving turkey until it’s so tender it can melt in your mouth. This year, she’s considering deep frying her bird, which she’ll serve to her three daughters, who range in age from 8 to 16.

Head is a single mom and came to the food pantry and social services organization Nourishing Hope’s food distribution last week in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood to get the items she’ll need to make Thanksgiving dinner. She plans to serve sweet potato and pecan pies, baked macaroni and cheese, green beans, stuffing and cabbage. And, of course, a turkey.

“The turkey in the store’s too high,” Head said.

That refrain was echoed by others picking up groceries at the pantry last week. “The inflation keeps sucking my blood,” one woman told the Tribune. And the pain is backed up by the numbers.

Thanksgiving will be 20% more expensive this year, according to an annual report released by the American Farm Bureau Federation. The average cost for a traditional Thanksgiving meal for 10 will be $64.05, up from last year’s average of $53.31. Turkey is up 21%, pie crusts are up 26% and sweet potatoes are up 11%.

Grocery prices on the whole, which have skyrocketed this year, are up nearly 12.5% over the same time in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“It’s been hard,” Head said of finding affordable groceries for her children. “Sometimes, you can’t get goodies. They be wanting candy and cookies and stuff like that, but you can’t really get them now because they’ve jacked the prices up.”

As inflated production costs increase prices up and down the grocery aisle, the turkey industry has been served a double whammy with avian flu, a respiratory virus that has led to the deaths of more than 8 million turkeys in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The virus has been detected in 46 states, contributing to a decline in turkey production of about 10% in the third quarter when compared with last year, according to the USDA.

“It has been a very challenging year for the turkey industry and turkey farmers,” said Beth Breeding, spokesperson for the National Turkey Federation, which estimates that about 40 million turkeys are consumed on or around the Thanksgiving holiday each year.

Breeding said despite the havoc wreaked by avian flu, she doesn’t expect shoppers to have trouble finding a turkey this year. But those who are after a particular size or type of turkey should shop early, she said.

In a statement, Farm Bureau chief economist Roger Cryan said higher turkey prices can be attributed to “a slightly smaller flock this year, increased feed costs and lighter processing weights,” in addition to more general factors affecting the entire meal, such as the war in Ukraine and supply chain disruptions. Cryan said he expected an adequate supply of whole turkeys this year, but that there may “temporary, regional shortages” in areas affected by avian flu.

In a September earnings call, Hormel Foods Chief Financial Officer Jacinth Smiley said the company’s Jennie-O turkey brand would see a decline in sales volume of about 30% in the fourth quarter. Still, the brand was expected to exceed profit expectations for the year.

Local turkey sellers echoed Breeding’s assessment of the turkey supply chain: There should be enough turkey to go around, but choosy buyers, particularly those after larger birds, should be proactive.

Bill Begale, owner of the butcher shop and specialty grocer Paulina Market in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, typically serves a 28-to-30-pound turkey at his own Thanksgiving. The big bird feeds about 30 or so people, who are also treated to pasta, sausage and a whole ham. This year, there’s been a slight hangup: the avian flu has limited the size of Begale’s turkeys to about 20 pounds, tops.

“They lost a lot of their young turkeys that were going to grow bigger,” Begale said of his turkey supplier, which is in Minnesota. “They don’t have enough time to raise them to 30 pounds, because of the bird flu.”

For Begale, the smaller turkeys aren’t a big deal. He plans to serve a 20-pound baked turkey alongside a smaller brined turkey, also available at the meat market.

Joe Kolavo, chief operating officer of Pete’s Fresh Market, which has locations across Chicago and its suburbs, also said turkeys bigger than 20 pounds are harder to find this year.

“We’re not getting shipped our full amounts of the larger turkeys that we wanted,” he said. “We’re going to be close to the total amount of turkeys that we ordered in advance, but the larger turkeys are gonna be a little harder to come by.” Pete’s turkey acquisition costs are up about 25% this year, Kolavo said.

Begale’s customers will pay $6.50 per pound for turkey this year, up from $5.95 last year, he said. That means an average-size 15-pound fresh turkey is running $97.50, up from $89.25 last year.

Fresh turkeys are costing Dom’s Kitchen & Market, with locations on Chicago’s North Side, about 80 cents to $1 more per pound than they did last year, said co-CEO Don Fitzgerald.

“We would, you know, try to be fair, but we’d have to pass the majority of that along to the customer,” Fitzgerald said.

Some larger retailers, which typically have more leverage with suppliers and are better able to absorb deep discounts, are promising big Thanksgiving price cuts.

Kroger, which owns Mariano’s, said in a news release Monday it would not pass along the extra cost of turkey – which it estimated at about 20 cents per pound – to consumers this Thanksgiving.

Walmart has said it will offer “this year’s Thanksgiving meal at last year’s prices,” basing its pricing on the average cost of Thanksgiving items from Nov. 1 to Dec. 26 last year. And Aldi announced similar holiday price cuts, saying it would discount Thanksgiving items to match 2019 prices, up to 30%.

At a Lakeview Mariano’s Monday, Jennie-O frozen turkeys were listed at $1.89 per pound. Customers who spent $25 on other items could snag one on sale for 58 cents per pound; at the discounted price, a 17-pound frozen turkey could be purchased for less than $10. Jewel-Osco was advertising a similar deal: 59 cents per pound for a frozen Jennie-O turkey, with a list price of $1.69 per pound.

The Farm Bureau noted that its price survey was done before grocery store chains began deeply discounting whole frozen turkeys, meaning shoppers who haven’t purchased a turkey yet should be able to find one cheaper than the report’s average.

Fresh supermarket turkeys are more expensive: at Mariano’s, a Sunny Meadow Farms fresh turkey was going for $3.89 a pound, or about $62.50 for a 16-pound bird. Bell & Evans fresh turkeys were listed at nearly $4 a pound, or $53.99 for a 13.4-pound bird.

But despite some deals, times are tough, and the holidays are an added stressor.

“It’s hard to carve out, for many folks, extra money for a holiday meal,” said Nourishing Hope CEO Kellie O’Connell.

Nourishing Hope usually sees an increase in visits during November and December, as people look to take off some of the financial burden of the holidays, O’Connell said. The pantry, which has also seen a significant decrease in turkey donations, is paying about 37% more per pound for turkey this year than last year.

So, despite spending about $50,000 on turkeys this year – roughly double what it paid last year, according to spokesperson Greg Trotter – Nourishing Hope expects to provide a few hundred fewer turkeys to Chicagoans than it did in 2021.

The organization plans meet increased need by providing greater quantities of other holiday meats, such as Cornish hens. The hens haven’t been spared from inflated prices, either, Trotter said, but their price increase hasn’t flown quite as high as the turkeys have.

“Even in a year without inflation, families often struggle to meet the demands of the holidays,” O’Connell said. “Everybody wants to provide a warm, great meal for their family.”

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