This holiday season is shaping up to be a more expensive one as pandemic-induced logistical challenges affect the country’s food supply. Thanksgiving, a holiday for which farmers and producers typically spend months planning, is projected to hit Americans’ pocketbooks harder than normal this year.
Pricey corn has driven up costs for the turkeys that feed on it. Aluminum producers, whose products are used for the foil wrapping post-Thanksgiving leftovers, are struggling to ship orders. In this interconnected world, labor shortages, higher shipping costs and supply chain snafus are driving up some Thanksgiving prices, according to Wendy White, a supply chain expert and project manager at Georgia Tech’s Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership.
“We have a large global market, and shipping something from another part of the world has become so easy for us in this day and age,” White said in an interview with Georgia Tech’s News Center. “Now, we’re seeing bottlenecks in the shipping and logistics segments of our food supply, and it becomes apparent how we sometimes are reliant on those imports.”
In its annual survey published November 18, the American Farm Bureau Federation said the cost of this year’s Thanksgiving staples have risen 14% from last year. Ten people enjoying turkey, potatoes, cranberries, vegetables and rolls — and an after-dinner pumpkin pie topped with whipped cream — will pay $53.31, or about $6 per person, this Thanksgiving, according to averaged results from the organization’s survey of grocery chains across the country.
The main course — a 7-kilogram frozen turkey — is $4.60 more expensive than last year, but the Farm Bureau’s predictions may ease as November 25 approaches. The organization’s price checkers began scouting out turkeys in late October, before grocers started offering reduced prices on Thanksgiving staples, and they didn’t factor in discounts from coupons, according to the Farm Bureau.
“Typically, turkeys are a loss-leader this time of year and the average wholesale price this time of year will be higher than the average retail price,” according to U.S. Agriculture Department Spokeswoman Paige Blanchard. “One would argue that the sale price for turkey is the most representative price,” a spokesperson wrote via email.
Nonetheless, Farm Bureau senior economist Veronica Nigh notes pandemic-induced inflation, supply chain disruptions and changes in consumer behavior will likely boost Turkey Day prices.
“As things get back to normal, and supply chains return to normal behavior, we would expect that next year and into the next months, the cost of food will certainly start looking like the historical normal rather than this increase that we’ve seen right now,” she said.
As always, families on the margins are especially feeling the pinch.
Organizations like Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin are seeing higher-than-normal demand for food aid as grocery costs increase. The Madison-based nonprofit supplies food pantries, meal sites and shelters in 16 counties with food sourced from donations and wholesale purchases. Kris Tazelaar, the organization’s communications director, said higher food prices have driven more locals to seek out Second Harvest Foodbank’s partner agencies.
“They already have very limited resources,” he said. “For the cost of food to go up like it has, it just means that they can buy less.”
Crossroads Community Service, a food pantry based in New York City, is paying more for carrots this year — and pork, and chicken, and liquid eggs and paper products. Prices are erratic but program manager David Sanders said the pantry has consistently seen 20% more customers over the past three months.
Such price increases hurt wider shares of the population and affect aid networks that rely on donations. A steady flow of donations normally undergirds Second Harvest Foodbank’s food stocks, but since the pandemic began, Tazelaar estimates the nonprofit has lost 15% of its donation stream. It has turned to farms, retailers and food processors to make up the difference.
As demand increases ahead of Thanksgiving — Tazelaar says food pantries have ramped up their orders over the past three weeks — supply chain issues and competition, coupled with higher food costs, are making this time of year more difficult. He notes that the people Second Harvest Foodbank helps are the ones most hurt by surging prices.
“It’s eye-opening to see a line of 50 cars, or 100 cars, and to see them pulling into the parking lot, and as they’re pulling up, to see tears in their eyes because they’re so grateful that they’re getting a little bit of help,” Tazelaar said.
Another New York City food pantry, The Bowery Mission, is ready to serve more than 1,000 people on Thanksgiving. As the head of one of the city’s oldest aid services, James Winans said his soup kitchen has had to bend in the winds of a challenging pandemic, adapting to supply issues and higher demand from down-and-out New Yorkers.
“Rising food prices and, in some ways, a sluggish job recovery in New York have combined to place a high burden on low-income New Yorkers,” he said. “We can certainly anticipate that we’ll be seeing some new faces this year on Thanksgiving.”
Like other food pantries, The Bowery Mission relies almost entirely on donations. Winans said that insulates his balance sheets from rising food prices, and though some suppliers have dialed back their donations, other sources maintain a steady flow of food into his kitchen.
A Whole Foods Market down the street keeps The Bowery Mission stocked with produce; City Harvest, another New York City-based organization, “rescues” food not yet ready to be thrown away from local restaurants. In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Mennonite and Amish farmers provide The Bowery Mission with most of its eggs and sugar.
“We have a very diversified stream of food donations that are coming into the mission,” Winans said, “and I think that helps with one aspect of the supply chain disruptions that there’s these other sources of food that are available to us.”
With 200 turkeys, 300 pies, 1,000 pounds of vegetables and 3,000 pounds of potatoes on tap this week, Winans said The Bowery Mission is buckled up for a busy Thanksgiving.
“Sometimes it’s that one meal or that one article of clothing or that one doctor’s appointment, whatever it is that we’re offering free of charge, no questions asked — it’s often the first step toward a complete life change,” he said. “We want to be that place for people who have nowhere else, and no one else, in the world to care for them.”