Your Thanksgiving meal in Louisiana likely costs more this year. Here's why
As a longtime grocer, Nicole Dorignac would typically associate the holiday season — one in which her store fills with shoppers looking to buy giant turkeys, ingredients for side dishes and their preferred pies — with a time of joy and celebration.
But there’s something putting a damper on this year’s Thanksgiving feast: the meal’s essential ingredients have heftier price tags, if they even make it to the shelves.
The owner and namesake of Dorignac’s found that stocking her family-owned grocery store in Metairie was exceptionally costly this year. She has reluctantly adjusted her retail prices to account for the low availability and what some experts say are record-high wholesale prices of food products.
This year’s Thanksgiving feast is gearing up to be more expensive than ever before. Nationwide trends indicate a significant uptick in retail prices of Thanksgiving-related ingredients, leaving Thanksgiving hosts across the country left with limited options and tight budgets as they prepare for what could be their first normal holiday feast with loved ones since the pandemic.
“In defense of all the store owners, we don’t just jack prices up just for kicks,” Dorignac said. “I mean, we have to because we had to pay more.”
Dr. Marcus Coleman, a visiting assistant professor at Tulane University with an academic background in agricultural economics, has observed this trend both on a personal level and on a macro scale.
He attributes the increased costs associated with the food distribution system to labor shortages brought on by the pandemic. Many Americans received stimulus checks and unemployment benefits – provisions of both the Trump and Biden administrations – that have offered them enough flexibility to refuse low wage labor.
Employers, such as food manufacturers, are left struggling to fill openings.
“We’re seeing wage disputes where employees are demanding higher wages or looking for higher paying jobs to support their families,” Coleman said.
But the pandemic’s impact on the supply chain extends beyond labor shortages. After a period of low demand, and subsequently low production, the supply chain simply cannot keep up with the sudden boom in consumer demand, Coleman explained.
The cost of producing a food product is determined by factors other than the cost to produce the food itself. Coleman pointed to the costs of packaging and transportation as possible explanations for the overall increase in grocery store prices.
The price of gas has climbed too, which significantly impacts the cost of distributing food products. Diesel currently averages at $3.645 a gallon, a notable increase from $2.390, the national average at this time last year.
In that same vein, the cost of packaging plays a critical role in determining the retail price of a food product. For example, steel, which is used to create metal used for canned goods, is 200% more expensive than usual.
“If you take that can of cranberry sauce that we enjoy to go along with our Thanksgiving meal … [and] if the cost of that metal goes up, then that’s the cost of the inputs that's used to put the cranberry sauce on the market place,” he said. “Those costs are also passed off to the consumer.”
The supply chain issue has turned political, with leaders lodging attacks on the fiscal policy of the opposing party.
On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy addressed the issue on the Senate floor, accrediting the increase in food prices to fiscal policy put forth by his Democratic colleagues.
“This Thanksgiving ... I hope my Democratic friends will give up on tying millstones around the neck of the American economy,” Kennedy said. “I hope they will give up fueling inflation with another extremist spending ... bill. And if they would do that — if they would just do that — Americans could sit down to eat next Thursday and give thanks that compassion and common sense have finally prevailed in Washington, D.C.”
He likened the lack of cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes on the shelves to “the Soviet Union 30, 40, 50 years ago.”
A study conducted by Pew Research Center found that a whopping 93% of Americans are either “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about the rise in prices of food products. However, only 45% of Democrats – as opposed to 78% of Republicans – believe that Biden’s economic policies have worsened the economy.
Though it seems that just about every industry is affected by the supply chain issues, small and local businesses in particular are getting crushed by the disruptions.
Dr. Coleman explained that many big box retailers are offering exceptionally low prices on turkeys due to their ability to negotiate contracts with food manufacturers. As a result, larger retailers are able to attract customers through promotions and deals.
Based on Dorignac’s observations, produce is the only category of food that has remained relatively stable. Everything else, including the main event dish, has bumped up in price.
“I know everybody’s worried about the turkey, so, yes, turkeys have gone up,” Dorignac said. “And then the availability of turkeys has been hit or miss. I know that everything we’ve ordered has either been cut a little bit or come later than it was supposed to come.”
The Farm Bureau reported that 16-pound turkeys will cost, on average, $23.99 this year — a 24% increase from last year’s price.
According to Coleman, the increase in the cost of corn, which farmers use to feed their growing turkeys, may play a critical role in the inflated cost of turkeys.
Aside from chicken and pork, Dorignac has seen the price of meat skyrocket.
“Bacon is like, crazy high right now,” she noted. “At one point it was up about 40%.”
Many Thanksgiving hosts like to provide hors d'oeuvres, the ingredients of which may also be pricier than usual.
“We’ve seen an increase pretty much across the board with the cheeses. Some of them are not even available right now. We can't even get the wheels of domestic blue cheese,” Dorignac said.
And if you’re ending the holiday evening with dessert, that too might cost more this year. Dorignac said prices are up for eggs, pre-packaged cookies, milk and chocolate are unusually high as well.
Kay Chan and her partner have spent the last few days gathering ingredients at Rouses and Costco for the vegetarian dishes they plan to serve up at a few Thanksgiving events, including some dinners, potlucks and “leftover feasts.”
But as they’ve walked down the aisles, what they’ve experienced can only be described as sticker shock.
“We have noticed that some prices have gone up in dairy products,” Chan said.
In shopping for ingredients, Chan intentionally bought in bulk in an attempt to avoid bearing the cost of inflated retail prices.
Compounded with the high cost associated with grocery shopping this year, Chan, like many Americans, is “definitely more cost conscious this year” due to life changes she and her partner have undergone.
Dorignac said her customers have noticed the increase in prices, with some store shoppers lashing out because of it.
With the loss of jobs and tighter budgets due to the pandemic, Dorignac regrets having to increase prices on goods, but she also feels that she didn’t have a choice.
“Customer service, value, and variety is what the store’s based on … so when we have to raise a price it really really really goes through our souls,” Dorignac said.
Only time will tell if food production, and everything else impacted by COVID-19, will return to the way it functioned pre-pandemic, Coleman said.
“Coming out of COVID, we get into a situation where it's just gonna take the economy some time to rebound, to get back to its normal production state,” Dr. Coleman said.
But there are factors that may prevent food production from returning to a pre-pandemic state.
Environmental factors, such as droughts and in Louisiana’s case, hurricanes and flooding, may disrupt agriculture in the coming years with increased frequency.
And even with time passing, Coleman said it’s hard to say whether or not prices will come down.
“One of the economic assumptions we make is that, due to inflation, things just tend to increase over time,” he said. “My hope is that it won't just increase to a point where you’ll begin to see too many inequities in the food system.”
Although prices are irregular, this year’s Thanksgiving will offer Americans a semblance of normalcy, marking this week as the first holiday season in two years in which Americans will be able to gather relatively safely.
Because of this, experts said that the increased price to pay on the goods that bring people together just might be worth it this year.
“Everyone’s so excited to get together,” Chan said.
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