Instead of buying all of her Thanksgiving meal in one fell swoop, Rebecca Raymond bought components of the festival here and there every week to keep her costs down.
Raymond, 48, lives in Montgomery, New York, with her husband and son. She has been out of work since January, although she is expected to take up a new job shortly after the holidays. Her husband works but his pre-tax salary is enough to prevent the family from being eligible for support, such as the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides benefits to low-income families to help them buy groceries, or food banks, Raymond said. “We were not approved to distribute food from the pantry on Thanksgiving,” she wrote on Twitter on November 15.
“Rent, utilities, heating, and insurance are not included,” Raymond said of requests for food aid. Raymond and her family have significantly reduced their groceries as prices have skyrocketed this year.
“We ate lots of pasta, chicken (when it’s on sale), hamburger casseroles (cheaper meat), and breakfast for dinner,” which, Raymond said in an email, were cheaper items than what she’d bought earlier. “Even milk costs are getting a bit out of hand,” she said, adding, “I know it’s going to get better at some point, but with income restrictions on food banks and SNAP benefits, people still can’t afford to feed their families the way they want.”
Since last Thanksgiving, food prices in the United States have risen by 13 percent, according to the latest consumer price index data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And almost every part of a traditional Thanksgiving meal has become significantly more expensive in the last year. This has heightened concerns among Americans, who are already struggling with persistently high inflation, and is affecting a holiday that focuses on food, family, and friends.
The price of poultry, including turkey, has risen by 16 percent. Fresh products, which are crucial for many side dishes, have risen by 9 percent. Packaged pasta rose by 17 percent and cheese by 12 percent. Canned fruits and vegetables, including American Thanksgiving table standards, canned cranberry sauce, and canned pumpkin, have risen 19 percent. Bread has risen by 15 percent. Coffee has risen by 15 percent. The price of baked goods rose by 16 percent.
And if you think it’s cheaper to make your own desserts? Flour rose by 25 percent, butter by 27 percent and eggs by a whopping 43 percent.
“The rising cost of ingredients has led us to cut back a bit,” said Raymond. She said she was able to get the ingredients for four of her usual side dishes, but one had to go. “Mashed potatoes are usually on the menu, and both instant potatoes and vegetable potatoes are simply not worth making,” for reasons of cost. And she swapped out her family’s usual morning treats for a cheaper option. “Breakfast usually consists of pastries or cinnamon rolls — these have been replaced with blueberry muffins from a mix I have in my cupboard,” Raymond said.
Her family will host a friend and the friend’s son without being able to go anywhere else, but she won’t host anyone else. They supplement the groceries with a basket they received from their son’s school, she said.
“Thanksgiving price sucked back”
Some discount stores in the US have taken steps to ensure that business doesn’t collapse over the holidays as prices continue to rise.
The US outlets of Aldi, the German food retail chain, are running a campaign in November called “Thanksgiving Price Rewind,” in which they have reduced prices for appetizers, desserts, side dishes and drinks on holidays to 2019 levels — in some cases even up to 30 percent less. “Why not try this extra side dish or invite a few more friends or family over this year? ” said Dave Rinaldi, President of ALDI US, in a news release dated November 1.
Pittsburgh’s Kelli Jones, a cashier at an Aldi store there, said she called $7,000 in groceries at the cash register on Sunday during a four-hour shift. “Grocery retailers are crazy the week before Thanksgiving,” she said. “Customers are arguing with us about vouchers and limits for butter and about how the discount for turkeys is shown on the receipt. But some are great—I got a fist bump and a pat on the back from a guy when I helped him find his food stamp credit. So there were highlights.”
Walmart announced on November 3 that it would sell turkeys and some side dishes, including stuffing, canned cranberry sauce, and corn muffin mix, at their 2021 prices. The discount chain’s offers will last until December.
Increase in demand from food banks
A survey by Feeding America, a nonprofit network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries, in August found that 90 percent of food banks reported increased demand for supplies this year due to rising food prices.
Cynthia Cumming, 65, the head of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church pantry in West Orange, New Jersey, said her pantry is expected to serve 24,000 people in 2022, more than three times as many as in 2019, ahead of the pandemic and the subsequent rise in food prices. During this time, they also switched from monthly to weekly food distribution, Cumming said.
Thanksgiving and the December holiday season, however, “are the times when the general American public becomes very benevolent,” Cumming said. “In a way, Thanksgiving is the least of a person’s problem.” Groceries aren’t cheaper than they were last month, and prices haven’t dropped, but pantry diners typically get the ingredients for a full Thanksgiving dinner, thanks to increased donations of food and time to the organizations that fill pantry shelves.
However, Cumming said: “You can’t live on donations alone. Donations are like the icing on the cake, not what we do.”
Cumming’s Pantry is part of an interfaith network of 20 member chambers in Essex County, New Jersey, run by Meeting Essential Needs With Dignity (MEND). It receives some food from MEND, including fresh produce and other fresh food, and some through partnerships with local companies such as Panera Bread, a national chain that donates annual bread.
As pantry manager, she also receives a $10,000 per year stip—an allowance that she returns to the pantry by buying basic groceries and anything else not covered by donations from local grocery stores or a retailer to fill out the two bags that her pantry distributes weekly to each customer.
“I’ve spent more money buying groceries this year than in any other year I was responsible for managing the food pantry,” Cumming said since 2010, estimating she’s spent $20,000 so far in 2022, double the previous year. She said she often can’t afford to buy as many products as she’d like and instead buy things like peanut butter and jelly and ramen noodles to supplement what her pantry customers get from other sources.
“When ShopRite sells something, I get the selling price [price],” said Cumming, referring to a supermarket chain with locations in six northeastern US states. “But pantries don’t get breaks here.”
She also notes that not only have prices risen, but portions have also shrunk. “All of these companies cut four to six ounces [113 to 170 grams] out of all their stuff,” she notes. A bag of chips, which now costs almost $5, contains just 11 ounces (312 grams), according to them, although the same bag size used to hold 16 ounces (454 grams). The same goes for cereal, she said. A half gallon (1.9 liters) of ice cream now contains just 48 liquid ounces (1.4 liters) of product. “Why would they want to change? ” she asks. “Earn more money for fewer products.”
Cumming, who works alongside the pantry for her local school district, said she and her husband, who also works full time, are being affected by rising food prices. “When we pay our bills and buy our food every month, we’re still living close to paycheck after paycheck,” she said.
Cumming is asking for grants from other organizations to try to balance their grant and that of their coordinator and the person who disposes of their trash so donations can only be used to provide food, but, she said, that’s usually not enough.
This shouldn’t affect people’s willingness to donate, Cumming said, but she hopes people will continue to think about food insecurity beyond the holidays. And she realizes that money is more than a bag of donated food. Cash donations to her pantry, according to Cumming, were low this year.
“You know, I think sometimes people prefer donating a bag of food to giving me money,” Cumming said. “I’m trying to tell people that I can do a lot more with the money you give me than with the bag of food you give me.”