THE RISING COST OF EVERYTHING: Wyomingites Adjust Thanksgiving Menus in the Face of Soaring Costs and Inflation

Residents cut back on meals and bargain shop while local grocery store owner and nonprofit help feed families

By Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth

GILLETTE, Wyo. ­– Tina Stout is poised for a pared down Thanksgiving dinner today. Amid record-high inflation and skyrocketing food prices, her $50 budget is stretched thin. Where typically she’d prepare a full spread for the holiday meal, this year the 58-year-old retail clerk is sticking to a few basics—yams,  potatoes and a turkey—for herself and her two siblings.

“It’s a lot harder this year than last year,” Stout, a clerk at Don’s Supermarket in Gillette, said on Tuesday.  “Everything is so much more expensive.”

Stout is not alone in feeling the pinch of the economic downturn.

In fact, two out of three Americans say that inflation and record high food and travel prices are impacting their Thanksgiving celebration, according to a recent survey by The Vacationer. Roughly 25% of the more than 1,000 survey respondents cited increased food costs as their primary concern, followed by travel costs at 17%.

Despite a slight dip in inflation from 8.2% in September to 7.7% in October, Wyomingites can expect to pay about 20% more for their holiday meal this year than in 2021.

Lesha Brock, 32, of Gillette, and her 7-year-old daughter Rayna select their turkey Nov. 22 at Don’s Supermarket in GIllette. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

According to the Farm Bureau’s annual survey, a meal for 10 will cost $64.05, or about $6.40 per person, compared to an average of $53.31 last year. Turkey is among the highest-priced items on the menu—up 21% at about $28.96 for a 16-pound bird, the survey found. This amounts to about a $5 increase from 2021 prices.

The second highest increase is for cubed stuffing, which jumped $1.59 for 14 ounces. Only one holiday staple – fresh cranberries – dropped by .41 cents for 12 ounces.

To help ease pain in the checkout line, in early November, Walmart announced plans to match last’s costs for turkey and other Thanksgiving staples in its 12 supercenters and two Sam’s Clubs in Wyoming.

Shortage of birds

Along with higher freight costs and overall inflation, turkey shortages due to the avian flu also impacted this year’s price tag.

Outbreaks among wild birds and poultry hit a record in the U.S., compared to previous avian outbreaks, and affected over 49 million birds in 46 states ­­– including Wyoming – according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Initially, it appeared that Don’s Supermarket would not sell turkeys this year. In July, owners pre-booked their orders from Associated Food Stores in Salt Lake City. But in August and September, they received two consecutive emails from the food distributor warning them that they might not be able to fulfill the order, Paul Unti, meat manager for the store, told the Wyoming Truth.

“They said the farms where they buy their turkeys had experienced an outbreak of avian flu,” he said. “There was a scare for a while.”

Two weeks ago, however, the store received its full order of 300 cases. The shipment came at a heavy cost, said Troy McKeown, owner of Don’s Supermarket and a Republican state senator from Gillette. 

“The turkeys cost about 70% more cost than last year,” McKeown said, declining to provide exact figures, but noting that he has kept prices relatively low to avoid “gouging” customers.

Don’s Supermarket realizes a slim profit margin on their birds, he noted, about 100 of which he offers free to customers via his “Turkey Bucks” program that runs through Christmas. McKeown launched the initiative in 2015, and it provides $1 off per turkey for every $25 customers spend.

The store also donates turkeys and other food items to several Gillette-based programs that help provide meals for families in need. One such program is the Council of Community Services holiday food program that provides $50 gift cards to individuals and families. 

This year, the council distributed 251 cards from the $19,600 raised through donations.

Sherrie Costello, emergency assistance coordinator, said the council still has 141 cards available for Christmas meals; the number of applicants this year is on par with 2021.

Bargain shopping

Lesha Brock, 32, has watched the weekly food bill double in the last few months for her 7-year-old daughter Rayna and husband Codi. The family of three used to spend $100 a week on groceries, but their bill is now closer to $200.

Luckily, Brock said, her mother is hosting Thanksgiving dinner for a dozen family members and friends. She’s been helping her shop for the past two weeks to keep the main and side dishes at the lowest possible price.  

Despite hitting all the sales, the meal is still costing Brock’s mother about $350 for turkey, ham and all the fixings. Brock is not sure how that compares to last year’s bill, but thinks it’s definitely higher.

Regardless, Brock said their family will continue Thanksgiving traditions no matter the cost or how much bargain shopping is required.

“We will make it work,” she said. “Family is what’s most important.”

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