Unless your family eats more than last year, Thanksgiving dinner should cost a little less, according to estimates by Purdue University, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"Americans should find a few more dollars left over after purchasing the annual meal," Purdue University agricultural economist Corinne Alexander in West Lafayette, Ind., said in her annual Thanksgiving food price assessment.
The reasons, say experts: Lower energy prices earlier in the year reduced production and shipping costs, while the recession has reduced export demand for items like dried milk. The economic slump has also forced many prices down as Americans shop more carefully, buy at discount stores, substitute cheaper foods like ground beef for expensive items like steak and opt for store brands rather than name brands.
"Folks still do have to eat, but by and large we're all going to the grocery store with less money than before," said Jim Sartwelle, an economist at the farm bureau federation in Washington.
An exception to lower prices, Alexander says, is sweet potatoes, whose prices are up in some markets from last year because of tighter supplies caused by crop damage in Louisiana last year from Hurricane Gustav. "Fortunately," she said, "Gustav did not hit North Carolina, which is another major sweet potato state."
But, says one food analyst, you better enjoy the relatively flat prices while you can. They almost certainly will increase as energy costs rise again and the world's economy recovers from the recession. "It'll be a shock if they don't," said Harry Balzer, a vice president and food analyst at the NPD Group Inc. business consulting firm, based in Rosemont, Ill.
The farm bureau says the cost of the "classic" Thanksgiving Day dinner will average 4 percent less this year. The turkey itself should be about 3 cents a pound less, it says. Last year, the federation estimated that prices would be up 5.6 percent from Thanksgiving 2007.
The labor statistics bureau says the price of food eaten at home in October averaged about 3 percent less than a year earlier, with the largest declines in dairy products, fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, fish and eggs.
At Iavarone Brothers, a family-run, Long Island-based chain of four gourmet groceries and a restaurant, store manager Jonathan Iavarone in New Hyde Park says his fresh turkeys are unchanged from last year, retailing for $2.99 a pound. Also unchanged is a 12-ounce bag of fresh cranberries at $2.98. But the sharp drop in the price of wheat has resulted in a reduction in the price of store-baked dinner rolls, from $6 a dozen last year to $4.99 this year. "Mostly, everything is the same as last year - thank God," he said.
But while the dinner will cost less, getting there will cost more. Gasoline prices have been on the rise again in recent months and regular averaged $2.872 a gallon Wednesday on Long Island, the AAA said, 46 cents higher than on the same date a year earlier.
Still, says the AAA, the traffic will be a little heavier than last year; the group forecasts that 1.4 percent more Americans, or a total of 33.2 million, will travel 50 miles from home or more on the holiday weekend - 86 percent of them by car, up 2.1 percent from last year.