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Turkey gobbles up Thanksgiving dollar; Vilsack’s meal focuses on the basics

Agriculture secretary puts fewer items on his menu

The turkey accounted for almost half the cost of the 2021 Thanksgiving meal in the American Farm Bureau's annual survey.
The turkey accounted for almost half the cost of the 2021 Thanksgiving meal in the American Farm Bureau's annual survey. (Roll Call file photo)

The tab for a Thanksgiving feast for 10 is 14 percent higher than last year in the annual survey released Thursday by the American Farm Bureau Federation, confirming that food inflation will take a bigger cut out of consumers’ pockets.

Thanksgiving sticker shock means Republicans on Capitol Hill can roast the Biden administration and congressional Democrats over spending and policies they say are fueling inflation.

Democrats can comfort themselves with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s pared-down shopping list for the holiday, showing only a 5 percent increase, but also excluding some of the trimmings. Vilsack released a list of six Thanksgiving basics Wednesday night. President Joe Biden may also want to reconsider any pardon for the White House turkey. The birds account for almost half the Farm Bureau’s Thanksgiving cost. 

“We know that even small price increases can make a difference for family budgets, and we are taking every step we can to mitigate that,” Vilsack said in a statement. He said major turkey producers are confident there will be no shortages, and on average the birds will cost $1 more than last year.

The Farm Bureau’s increase is a record in the 35 years the organization has sent volunteers into grocery aisles to check holiday prices. This year is only the second where the survey found a classic Thanksgiving dinner costs more than $50. The total bill for 2021 for feeding 10 people “with plenty of room for leftovers” is $53.31, farm bureau senior economist Veronica Nigh told reporters in an online briefing.

The menu includes turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, rolls with butter, peas, cranberries, veggie tray, pumpkin pie with whipped cream and coffee and milk. In the spirit of the holiday, the Farm Bureau found at least one thing to be thankful for: its classic dinner costs just $6 per serving. Even the classic dinner doesn’t come with all the frills. The Farm Bureau’s deluxe Thanksgiving meal includes ham, russet potatoes and green beans.

Nigh said pandemic-related supply chain disruptions and uncertainty coupled with a global surge in demand for food, especially meat, are fueling higher prices in 2021.

The Farm Bureau’s year-on-year comparison came in part against a lower base. Last year, food prices fell by 4 percent as the COVID-19 pandemic affected demand, Nigh said. The 2020 survey for a classic Thanksgiving meal clocked in at $46.90, down from $48.91 in 2019.

“No concern about inventory out there. There’s plenty of supply,” Nigh said.

Nigh said the 16-pound frozen turkey on her organization’s shopping list accounts for 45 percent of the cost. Skip the turkey and dinner would cost 6.6 percent more, nearly in line with the overall 6.2 percent inflation number in the most recent Consumer Price Index. The CPI for food at home has risen 5.4 percent over the past 12 months with all six major grocery store food group indexes increasing.

Nigh said volunteer shoppers found few bargains on frozen turkey from Oct. 26 through Nov. 8, the period when they reported prices. But timing may be everything. By Nov. 12, the Agricultural Marketing Service was reporting an uptick in grocery store discounts on turkeys and a 300 percent increase in the number of retailers cutting prices, she said, adding that typically stores start discounts earlier in the holiday cycle. 

Nigh said whatever gains farmers may see in revenue are eroded by the higher prices for energy, fertilizer, animal feed, transportation and other costs of running farms. She said the farmer’s share of the food dollar remains at about 8 percent. 

Despite a 24 percent increase in retail prices, turkey farmers may not be pocketing more revenue, Nigh said. Most commercial turkey farmers raise their birds under contract to poultry companies.

“They signed their contract as late as this spring. They locked in the price that they were receiving for turkeys way back in the spring,” Nigh said.

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