Just about every item you expect to find on the table for a big Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner is being impacted by supply chain issues, staffing shortages, higher costs of production, scarcity – or all of the above.
Let’s start with the side dishes. The issue here isn’t so much with the ingredients, but rather with the packaging those ingredients come in. Aluminum cans, glass jars and bottles are all tied up in shipping bottlenecks on their way from China, said Rodney Holcomb, a food economist at Oklahoma State University.
“Those could be stuck on a ship somewhere off the West Coast and just not making it into port,” Holcomb said.
There may be plenty of cranberries to make cranberry sauce – just no easy way to package it. Others are having trouble getting labels for their products. As food makers get creative on how to cope with packaging changes and shortages, those costs can be passed on to consumers.
On top of the packaging problems, “the California drought [is] also impacting grapes, nuts, different fruits and vegetables. And Hurricane Ida shut down sugar refineries in the southeast,” said Holcomb. “Any one of those might have an impact. You throw them all together, and they become quite the challenge.”
Even your raw vegetables might be more expensive because the cost of fertilizer, much of which is imported from China, has skyrocketed. Not to mention, the increased cost of fertilizer means it’s more expensive to grow corn, which means it’s more expensive to raise chickens, turkey and other livestock. “It’s one big expensive circle,” said Holcomb.
When it comes to desserts, the same packaging problems apply for a can of pumpkin or a pre-made frozen pie crust. Since those are both shelf stable, just buy them when you see them, advised Holcomb. Even some of the sturdier vegetables, like sweet potatoes, will last long enough if you store them properly.
“Start planning ahead and it gives you time to look around. If one store doesn’t have that one product you want, it gives you time to look around for the thing you want,” he said.
Now for many families’ main course: meat. The cost of all food is up nearly 5% from a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but meat prices have risen especially high, said Derrell Pierce, an Oklahoma State agricultural economics professor specializing in livestock.
The protein markets have been through a lot in the last year, with demand spiking during COVID-19 lockdowns and meat processing plants being hit hard by virus outbreaks. Pierce doesn’t expect we’ll be seeing cleaned out, empty meat cases at grocery stores this year, but there are still some quirks you may notice.
For example, you might have trouble finding a small turkey. That’s because turkeys grow pretty quickly, so if there are any slowdowns at a processing plant (because of a COVID-19 outbreak or a broken piece of equipment that needs a part shipped from overseas) then those turkeys keep getting bigger and bigger.
“Whenever a turkey reaches that 10 to 13 lb. window, if they can’t get them slaughtered on time … now you’ve got an 18 to 20 lb. turkey,” said Pierce.
His tip for dealing with uncertainty this year is to stay flexible.
“You may not get exactly the product you’ve always gotten,” said Pierce. “There will be a turkey of some size. There will be hams. They may not be the boneless, spiral cut you normally get, but there will be some other form of ham.”
“If there was ever a time where you have said, ‘maybe I should mix things up and drop one of the traditional items and try something new,’ this would be the year to consider it,” said Holcomb.
“Find that one thing (that is grown) local and that can become your new food tradition, instead of getting that thing that you always buy – but everyone in the country always buys too – so it’ll be hard to find.”
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