Rising food prices are taking a bite out of the Thanksgiving meal

In early November, Hayes Culbreth’s mother sent out inquiries to several family members. She said she could only make two sides for her group of 15 this Thanksgiving and asked each to vote for their favorite.

Culbreth predicts that green beans and macaroni and cheese will make the cut, but her favorite — sweet potato casserole with a brown sugar crust — won’t.

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

Americans are bracing for a costly 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 rise 9.5% to 10.5% this year; historically, they have grown by only 2% annually.

Lower production and higher costs for labor, transportation and materials are part of the reason; illness, harsh weather and the war in Ukraine are also contributors.

“It’s not really a disadvantage. It’s a tighter supply, with pretty good reasons for that,” said David Anderson, a professor and agricultural economist at Texas A&M.

Wholesale turkey prices hit record highs after a tough year for U.S. flocks. A particularly deadly strain of bird flu — first reported on an Indiana turkey farm in February — has killed 49 million turkeys and other poultry in 46 states this year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control.

As a result, per capita U.S. turkey supplies are at their lowest level since 1986, said Mark Jordan, executive director of Jonesboro, Arkansas-based Leap Market Analytics. Jordan forecasts wholesale prices for frozen, 8- to 16-pound turkeys, typically bought for Thanksgiving, to hit $1.77 a pound in November, up 28% from the same month last year.

Still, there will be plenty of whole birds for Thanksgiving tables, Jordan said. Companies have been moving a higher percentage of birds to the entire turkey market over the past few years to take advantage of consistent holiday demand.

And not every producer was equally impressed. Butterball, which supplies about a third of its Thanksgiving turkeys, said bird flu affected only 1% of its production because of safety measures it put in place after the last major flu in 2015.

But it can be harder for buyers to find turkey breasts or other cuts, Jordan said. And higher ham prices give chefs less-expensive alternatives, he said.

Bird flu also pushed egg prices to record highs, Anderson said. A dozen Grade A eggs were selling for an average of $2.28 in the second week of November, more than double the price of a year earlier, according to the USDA.

Egg prices would have been higher even without the flu, Anderson said, due to the rising cost of corn and soybean meal used for chicken feed. Ukraine is usually a major exporter of corn, and the loss of that supply has pushed up global prices.

Add that to the rising prices of canned pumpkin — a 30-ounce can is up 17% over last year, according to market researcher Datasembly — and it’s clear that Thanksgiving dessert is going to cost more, too. Libby, owned by Nestle, produces 85% of the world’s canned pumpkin — said the pumpkin crop was in line with previous years, but had to offset higher labor, transportation, fuel and energy costs.

Planning on filling the sides? This will cost you dearly. A 16-ounce can of stuffing is up 14% from last year, Datasemby said. In the second week of November, a 5-pound bag of Russet potatoes averaged $3.26, up 45.5% from a year ago.

Craig Carlson, CEO of Chicago-based Carlson Produce Consulting, said the frost and wet spring have seriously stunted potato growth this year. Farmers have also raised prices to compensate for the high cost of seeds, fertilizers, diesel fuel and machinery. Carlson said that production costs for some growers this year have increased by as much as 35%, an increase that is not always recouped.

High labor and food costs also make ordering prepared food more expensive. Whole Foods advertises a classic Thanksgiving dinner for eight people for $179.99. This is $40 more than the price announced last year.

The good news? Not every item on holiday shopping lists is significantly more expensive. Paul Mitchell, an agricultural economist and professor at the University of Wisconsin, said cranberries had a good crop and prices rose less than 5% between late September and early November. According to the USDA, green beans are up just 2 cents a pound in the second week of November.

And many grocers are discounting turkey and other holiday items in hopes that shoppers will spend more freely on other items. Walmart is promising turkeys under $1 per pound and says ham, potatoes and stuffing will be the same as last year. Kroger and Lidl have also cut prices, so shoppers can spend $5 or less per person on a meal for 10 people. Aldi is reducing prices to 2019 levels.

But Hays Culbreth isn’t optimistic about the stew. She’s not much of a cook, so she plans to pick up a pumpkin pie or two at the grocery store on her way to her family’s party.

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