If you’ve noticed that the prices of traditional American Thanksgiving staples have gone up this year, you’re not imagining things. According to a survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the cost of a typical Thanksgiving turkey dinner for 10 guests will be close to 13 percent higher this year than in November of 2010.
You could blame the bird. The AFBF notes that prices for whole turkeys are up almost 25 cents per pound over last year. But prices for pumpkin, cranberries and sweet potatoes have also jumped — the cost of canned pumpkin is up more than 13 percent, and that sweet potato casserole could cost you about 7 percent more this year.
In fact, it’s not just that turkey dinner with all the trimmings that is suddenly costing American consumers more than they’re used to spending at the grocery store: Food prices in general have been on the rise all year. In October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture projected that by the end of 2011, the Consumer Price Index for food will have risen by 3.5 to 4.5 percent. Prices of of staple dairy and wheat products in particular have been on the rise. A gallon of whole milk costs consumers roughly 10 percent more now than it did in late 2010; a loaf of bread, 7 percent more.
Drastic price increases on everyday food staples are very bad news for the many Americans who have already been struggling for years to make ends meet in the wake of a global recession. In the face of two straight years of declining household income, and a national unemployment rate that continues to top 9%, the average American household’s spending on food has dropped by about 5% since 2007 — the largest decrease in 25 years. In August, a USDA report revealed that a record number of Americans — more than 45 million — now rely on food stamps. That’s 1 out of every five people in the country.
With families cutting grocery budgets across America, and with so many Americans now relying on meager government food subsidies just to get by, cash-strapped consumers on the hunt for deals are putting plenty of pressure on food producers to reduce prices, not raise them. So why is it that food prices are still on the rise?
For American farmers, 2011 did not bring much to be thankful for. In the breadbasket Midwest, spring floods ravaged the fertile Mississsippi and Missouri river valleys, destroying some food crops and drastically delaying the planting of others. A record-setting tornado season ripped up farm fields from California to Pennsylvania. Drought-driven wildfires in Texas destroyed acres of wheat. And all of that happened before June.
Then in July and August of this year, an unprecedented heat wave broke temperature records in Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. The heat wave and drought combined to severely damage several staple food crops, including the U.S. corn crop, leading to the smallest corn harvest in three years and driving U.S. corn prices to a record high.
When the prices of basic grains like corn and wheat rise, so too do the price of meat and dairy — because the farmers who raise dairy cows and Thanksgiving turkeys feed their livestock grain. A sharp increase in the cost of the corn used in turkey feed means a sharp increase in the cost of a Thanksgiving turkey dinner.
And fruits and vegetables weren’t exempt from 2011′s weather-fueled price increases, either: this year’s wicked combination of floods, drought, and storm damage led to a nationwide pumpkin shortage — hence the higher cost of canned pumpkin for Thanksgiving pies.
Unfortunately, 2011′s wild weather may have been a glimpse into our climate — and food — future. Top climate scientists have recently linked 2011′s extreme weather events to the effects of global climate change. In early November, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report summary noting evidence that an increase in global temperatures has likely caused an increase in heat waves and unusual precipitation patterns not just in the U.S., but worldwide. Also this month, NASA physicist and climatologist James Hansen published a paper stating that the destructive 2011 heat wave in Texas, as well as a similar event in 2010 in Russia, “almost certainly would not have occurred in the absence of global warming.”
With climate-change fueled weather disasters likely to continue to disrupt the global food supply, Americans are not likely to see relief at the grocery store any time soon. The USDA predicts the cost of food will rise again by 3 – 4 percent in 2012.
So this year, if you’re lucky enough to be looking forward to an abundant Thanksgiving feast despite high food prices, consider sharing a little extra holiday food with your neighbors by donating to a food pantry — and after Thanksgiving, let’s all consider, too, as the time for New Year’s resolutions draws near, what steps we can personally take to fight climate change and live a more sustainable lifestyle in 2012.
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Photo of pumpkin pie by Patricia, from Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons license.