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Thanksgiving dinner will cost more. But how much?

Americans can cook the classic Thanksgiving meal featuring roast turkey and pumpkin pie for $5.33 a person, according to an informal survey of supermarket prices. But while all sides agree that ingredients for the meal will cost more this year, there is a wide range of viewpoints on how large the increase will be.

The largest U.S. farm group says the traditional meal will cost 14% more than last year — but possibly much less than that, because prices are now falling for frozen turkey, the centerpiece of the meal.

Using a different shopping list, the USDA says the ingredients for a Thanksgiving meal are up by a combined 5%. And according to the government’s inflation gauge, the Consumer Price Index, grocery prices are 5.4% higher than they were a year ago, which would include the fixings for Thanksgiving.

Food, one of the largest components of consumer spending, offers a routine reminder to shoppers of rising prices as the economy recovers from the pandemic. The squabbling over the cost of Thanksgiving dinner, amplified by partisan finger-pointing over who’s to blame for inflation, may have been kicked off by a New York Times story in late October that began, “Thanksgiving 2021 could be the most expensive meal in the history of the holiday.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the chief blessing of the holiday will be “the ability to spend time with loved ones, which we could not do last year” because of precautions against the spread of COVID-19. The government is taking “every step we can to mitigate” food inflation, he said. “The good news is that the top turkey producers in the country are confident that everyone who wants a bird for their Thanksgiving dinner will be able to get one, and a large one will only cost $1 dollar more than last year.”

Frozen turkey sold for an average of 88 cents a pound last week, according to the USDA’s Market News service. But it was $1.50 a pound when 218 “volunteer shoppers” checked grocery prices across the country for the American Farm Bureau Federation in late October and early November.

Based on its informal survey, the AFBF said the price of ingredients for a Thanksgiving meal was up 14% from 2020, for a cost of $5.33 per person. The survey assumes shoppers are buying in bulk for a meal that serves 10, so the cart of groceries cost $53.31. The price per person was $4.69 in 2020, the lowest in a decade, when whole turkeys were heavily discounted and Americans were encouraged to avoid large gatherings. In 2019, before the pandemic, the cost per person was $4.89 in the AFBF survey.

“Several factors contributed to the increase in average cost of this year’s Thanksgiving dinner,” said AFBF economist Veronica Nigh in a statement. “These include dramatic disruptions to the U.S. economy and supply chains over the last 20 months; inflationary pressure throughout the economy; difficulty in predicting demand during the COVID-19 pandemic; and high global demand for food, particularly meat.”

If turkey is taken off the shopping list, the price increase for the Thanksgiving meal is 6.6%, said Nigh, tracking closely with the CPI. Grocers waited longer than usual before cutting turkey prices ahead of the holiday, said the AFBF. It listed an average price of $1.50 a pound. Frozen turkey was advertised at an average of $1.07 a pound during the final days of its survey. The price fell again, to 88 cents a pound — the price quoted by the USDA — a week later.

“This means consumers who have not yet purchased a turkey should be able to find one at a lower cost than the Farm Bureau average,” said the farm group.

Turkey is the big-ticket item on the Thanksgiving list of groceries, accounting for 40 to 45% of the cost.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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