2 foods making Thanksgiving pricey this year

Despite worries about the impact on food prices of a severe drought across much of the nation's midsection, consumers will pay roughly the same as last year for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

By 247 Wall St. Nov 19, 2012 1:18PM

Coupon © Tom Grill/CorbisBy Samuel Weigley, 24/7 Wall St.

For the average American heading to the supermarket to shop for Thanksgiving dinner, bringing a $50 bill should do the trick.

The average cost of a 10-serving Thanksgiving dinner will be $49.48 this year, according to a data from the American Farm Bureau Federation, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of farmers. The group relied on 150 volunteer shoppers across the country to price traditional Thanksgiving menu items, from turkey to pumpkin pie. The group's findings were used to compare how much those items cost last year with what consumers will pay this year.

With the United States having experienced its worst drought in decades this summer, there has been much concern about rising food prices. Yet the price of a Thanksgiving dinner in 2012 increased just slightly from its cost of $49.20 in 2011. In fact, of the 12 items calculated by the AFBF for the dinner, eight were cheaper than they were last year, while three became more expensive.

"All the talk that there has been about the drought . . . sort of fed this expectation that we’d see a big jump in the Thanksgiving dinner price survey," AFBF deputy chief economist John Anderson said in an interview. "I’m not terribly surprised by this result."

Anderson noted that the effects of the drought haven't been evident in retail prices yet, since decisions about retail strategy and pricing for Thanksgiving are often made "months, or at least weeks" in advance. The drought effects will hit consumers’ wallets hardest within the next three to six months, Anderson said. But prices in the coming months will be based on many other factors, including energy prices, the overall strength of the economy and the behavior of Mother Nature.

Although the cost of a Thanksgiving dinner barely changed from 2011, it is significantly up from $42.91 back in 2009 and $43.47 in 2010. Anderson explained that prices as a whole were still rising during the years of the global recession due to higher demand worldwide, but retailers were reluctant to pass along those costs to consumers. "Consumers were just incredibly cost-conscious during the recession," Anderson said. By 2011, however, the economy was on strong enough footing that retailers began charging higher prices.

The nationwide survey priced such supermarket items as a 16-pound turkey, a dozen dinner rolls, rolls, a 1-pound vegetable tray, a 14-ounce package of turkey stuffing, a gallon of whole milk and 12 ounces of fresh cranberries, among other items. We considered data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to identify changes in production for various commodities to determine why food prices may have changed. 

These are the Thanksgiving items rising or falling in price.

Price Losers

1. Pie shells (2)
 2012 price: $2.51
 2011 price: $2.52
 Price change: -$0.01
 Pct. change: -0.4%

While the price of grains has been rising, that hasn’t made it into packaged items such as pie shells. Anderson said that for many foods, notably packaged foods such as pie shells, the way major retail chains market the items and how much to stock on the shelves could lead to slight price fluctuations year over year.

2. Pumpkin pie mix (30 oz.)
 2012 price: $3.02
 2011 price: $3.03
 Price change: -$0.01
 Pct. change: -0.3%

It's been a mixed year for pumpkin producers. While some complained the national drought hurt their crop, others said the drought actually benefited them since pumpkins tend to thrive in warmer weather. Anderson pointed out that unlike major crops such as corn and wheat, pumpkin production takes place on a much smaller scale. This allows pumpkin growers to mitigate the effects of negative weather on their crops compared to other farmers. He also noted that pumpkin growing season takes place at different times depending on location, helping to spread out the risk of a bad production season.

3. Green peas (1 lb.)
 2012 price: $1.66
 2011 price: $1.68
 Price change: -$0.02
 Pct. change: -1.2%

It’s been a good year for bean producers, which includes pea producers. Although the Department of Agriculture does not track the production of green peas, it noted in a recent report that dry bean production is expected to be up 35% in 2012. In Michigan, where peas constitute roughly a third of all dry bean production in the state, yields are expected to rise a more modest 4% in 2012.

4. Fresh cranberries (12 oz.) 
 2012 price: $2.45
 2011 price: $2.48
 Price change: - $0.03
 Pct. change: -1.2%

Although lower yields tend to lead to higher prices, this hasn’t been the case with cranberries. Production of cranberries is projected to be slightly less than last year, according to the most recent estimates by the Department of Agriculture. Cranberry growers faced heat stress in parts of the country due to high temperatures in the summer. But other places had fewer problems. Wisconsin, which produces 57% of cranberries in the United States, is on track to produce 2% more than in 2011. The department noted that growers in Wisconsin "reported excellent pollination and limited impact from the summer’s high temperatures and dry conditions."

5. Whole milk (1 gallon) 
 2012 price: $3.59
 2011 price: $3.66
 Price change: -$0.07
 Pct. change: -1.9%

Milk prices are lower than last year due to extra supply built up during last winter’s mild temperatures. The low milk prices, along with the high feed costs, have put enormous financial pressure on dairies. Dozens of dairies located in California, the largest producer of dairy products of all states, have recently filed for bankruptcy. To combat the low prices, many cows are now being slaughtered. Already, this has led to an ascent in dairy prices in the past few months and could lead to record high dairy prices in 2013.

6. Sweet potatoes (3 lbs.)
 2012 price: $3.15
 2011 price: $3.26
 Price change: -$0.11
 Pct. change: -3.4%

Although the country’s drought has led to a lot of crop damage, potato farmers were relatively unscathed. The Department of Agriculture notes that potato production is expected to grow by nearly 7% this year. Idaho, where more than a third of the nation’s potatoes are produced,increased its production by 11% in the fall season. The market value of the potatoes produced in 2012 is expected to rise by nearly 10% to $4.4 billion.

7. Cubed stuffing (14 oz.)
 2012 price: $2.77
 2011 price: $2.88
 Price change: -$0.11
 Pct. change: -3.8%

The price of a 14-ounce package of cubed stuffing dropped by 11 cents from 2011 to 2012, although Anderson said it was hard to deduce much from this cut. He noted the value of the raw commodities in the stuffing play just a small role in the overall cost of the stuffing, with costs such as packaging, transportation and marketing playing much larger roles. He suspects the price drop has a lot to do with retailers heavily promoting stuffing.

8. Whipping cream (½ pint)
 2012 price: $1.83
 2011 price: $1.96
 Price change: -$0.13
 Pct. change: -6.6%

Of all the Thanksgiving groceries, the price of whipping cream has declined more than any other, which can be attributed to the price of dairy products. Although fluid milk prices have begun rising due to the cow slaughtering, those prices have yet to be reflected in packaged food. But this won’t last forever. The Department of Agriculture predicts those prices will be fully reflected within the next 10 to 12 months.

Price Gainers

1. Rolls (12)
 2012 price: $2.33
 2011 price: $2.30
 Price change: +$.03
 Pct. change: +1.3%

Wheat prices have risen in recent months due to drought, which caused a supply shortage. The upcoming harvest season is not looking much better. Only 36% of this year's winter wheat was rated good or excellent -- the quality most used for making wheat products. Last year, 50% of the wheat was rated good or excellent, according to the Department of Agriculture. Similarly, this year 22% of the what was rated poor or very poor compared to only 14% last year. Drought conditions in other countries such Russia and Ukraine also hurt crops there, further pressuring wheat prices higher.

2. Turkey (16 lb.)
 2012 price: $22.23
 2011 price: $21.57
 Price change: +$.66
 Pct. change: 3.1%

Unfortunately for Thanksgiving diners, the most expensive item on the shopping list was also the item that rose in price more than any other. Prices have risen compared with last year due to droughts affecting the Midwest, which have increased the price of turkey feed. Worse, drought effects on turkey prices are expected to last through at least 2013. The increased turkey prices have left many charities hosting Thanksgiving dinners facing a turkey shortage.

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