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A mother pushes her child in a grocery cart as she reaches for vegetables in the produce section. Both are wearing face masks.
Financial Health
November 19, 2020

The quest for a familiar Thanksgiving meal

Many food suppliers have overcome pandemic challenges as they prepare for Thanksgiving. Consumers can expect to see familiar items on the shelves, but with some price hikes and delivery delays.

From growers to grocers, most of America’s food suppliers appear poised to fill the shelves and Thanksgiving tables for consumers this year, despite the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, industry analysts say.

For households to have a “normal” holiday meal amid the pandemic would be a testament to the resilience of an industry which was impacted by outbreaks, quarantines, and shutdowns.

Although many providers of traditional holiday fare have overcome difficult challenges to become Thanksgiving-ready, consumers can still expect to find higher prices for some items, online delivery delays, and even a few shortages when shopping for this year’s feast.

“This year is going to be a different year in many ways. In most years, it’s taken for granted that you can make your list at the last minute and brave the crowds to get what you need. Not so this year, especially if there are special food items on your list. The best advice is to do your shopping at least a week earlier than usual, including online orders.” — Michael Swanson, agribusiness economist for Wells Fargo Commercial Banking

“This year is going to be a different year in many ways,” said Michael Swanson, an agribusiness economist for Wells Fargo Commercial Banking. “In most years, it’s taken for granted that you can make your list at the last minute and brave the crowds to get what you need. Not so this year, especially if there are special food items on your list. The best advice is to do your shopping at least a week earlier than usual, including online orders.”

Here’s how some of the major food sectors are faring this year, according to a recent report by Swanson and the Wells Fargo Food and Agricultural Industry Advisor Group.

Under the heading “Fruits and veggies,” there is a colorful layout of fruit and vegetables, including apples, oranges, corn, cabbage, peppers, onions, and celery.

First, the best news: Count on filling your basket with apples, sweet potatoes, greens, and other fruits and vegetables this holiday season.

“This is the brightest spot in the Thanksgiving outlook,” Swanson said. “Most harvests were plentiful, and people shouldn’t worry about finding their favorite greens, potatoes, nuts and berries, and other fruit for their table this year.”

Even cranberries, which entered 2020 with the lowest inventories since 2011, have made a strong comeback, buoyed by a strong growing season in Massachusetts and Wisconsin, according to the Wells Fargo report.

Under the heading “Butter and cheese,” there is a display of cheeses, eggs, milk bottles, butter, and cream — all on a wooden dining table.

Fallout from the pandemic sent butter prices plunging, while the price of cheese soared. The reason: Cheese prices were buoyed by U.S. Department of Agriculture contracts, while butter prices languished after the virus shutdown of the foodservice and restaurant industry — its most critical market.

“If you want that cheese tray with your holiday meal this year, it’s probably going to cost a little more,” Swanson said. “If you’re baking rolls and cookies and other butter-based goods, you’ll be in good shape. There’s plenty out there, and it’s price-friendly.”

Under the heading “Turkey,” there is a full roasted turkey surrounded by apples and garnished with parsley on a Thanksgiving serving tray.

It’s also a “split decision” for the most iconic item of the holiday meal — the turkey. Early in the pandemic, the shutdown hit some processing plants and disrupted the supply chain. After they reopened, they’ve been playing catch-up, which has tightened supplies. As a result, whole bird prices are up, but single breast prices are down — which may increase their popularity as families hold smaller gatherings during the pandemic.

Under the heading “Seafood,” there are a variety of seafood items including fish, shrimp, squid, and oysters.

If you like salmon or shrimp for Thanksgiving, you’re in luck. Seafood prices have been sinking as seafood’s primary market — the restaurant business — has cratered during the pandemic. Prices of farmed salmon and shrimp are now running at five-year lows.

With potentially fewer folks at the holiday table, consumers may want to feature seafood on their menu, the Wells Fargo report says.

Under the heading “Wine,” there is a fully stocked display case containing various types of wines.

Consumers who like a glass of vino with their turkey day meal can rest easy this year. Sales are soaring and wine supplies are plenteous, thanks to the advance industry cycle of grape harvesting and wine bottling.

Next year could be a different story because of this year’s historic California wildfires, which burned parts of Napa Valley.

“The fire certainly did cause a lot of smoke exposure,” Swanson said. “There was also a lot of sheltering in place because of COVID-19, and many of the grapes were not harvested. So, while this year’s supplies are good, next year producers may look for alternatives outside of areas that were impacted this year.”

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