Thanksgiving 2020: A holiday to remember

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
The holiday season usually means big Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

Thanksgiving is shaping up to be a strange one this year as families are gathering in smaller groups – or not at all – and families are buying less of the traditional fall holiday foods.

Wisconsin Grocers Association president Brandon Scholz said grocery stores are prepared for the holiday season and have been for months as they continue to get turkey shipments they filled orders for months ago. He said there will not be a turkey shortage this year, but meat may be scarce due to high demand, especially since many more people are cooking at home this year rather than going to restaurants.

"You have 12 people, 14 people over and you're buying a 26-pound bird. You have four people for dinner, 12 (pounds) is a big bird," Scholz said. "We know that dinners are going to be smaller, and that's fine."

Stores may also be closed earlier than usual or not open at all on Thanksgiving this year, Scholz said. While that has been a trend for several years as big box stores give their employees more time to spend with family, he said it's amplified by the pandemic, even as grocery stores have had a severe and consistent labor shortage since COVID-19 took root.

Beyond just turkey, Scholz said consumers are also buying things "by the boatload" that they had never bought before, like yeast. He said one grocer in the Milwaukee area was at a loss for where to buy yeast in bulk because he had never run out of it on his shelves before.

FILE - In this Nov. 27, 2019, file photo people shop for food the day before the Thanksgiving holiday at a Walmart Supercenter in Las Vegas.  U.S. consumer prices increased slightly last month, driven higher by more expensive food. The Labor Department said Wednesday, March 11, 2020, that the consumer price index ticked up 0.1% last month, matching its January increase.

Grocers are spending a lot of money on other things, too, like sanitation products. Scholz said grocers are working hard to ensure safety for both customers and employees, introducing sanitizing stations for hands and carts, instituting facemask policies and installing plastic dividers at cash registers. Raised wages for workers and hired security guards just pile onto the extra expenses.

"The cost of not only meeting state, federal and local requirements, but just the natural inclination to do what's right so that you can stay in business – grocers can't afford to make a mistake and go out of business," Scholz said. "You go out of business for a couple of days, you're gone, your competitors will just chew you up. They could never let their foot off the gas."

Scholz said that despite trying times, Wisconsin's grocery and retail industries have continued to maintain good relationships with the state's ag industry partners as both sides worked to produce for consumers and keep shelves stocked, even while people hoarded and stockpiled items.

The biggest challenge on the plate right now is not supply, but demand – while supply is at normal or even higher levels than usual, the demand has completely skyrocketed this year, especially as people learn to cook meals for their families.

"When meat processing went down, that was a real crunch. But they're making changes and still getting stuff out the door. Yes, the shelves may be a little emptier than what we're used to, but we got product on those shelves every day," Scholz said. "You walk in the grocery store, you may have to buy something different than what you're used to, but you'll always be able to buy something. It's gonna be fresh, it's gonna be safe, it's gonna be competitively priced."

Turkeys are shown in a pen at Root Down Farm in Pescadero, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. Many turkey farmers are worried their biggest birds won't end up on Thanksgiving tables. Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and restrictions on large gatherings, the traditional Thanksgiving feast is being downsized. Fewer people at Thanksgiving tables means many families will buy smaller turkeys, or none at all.

Turkey prices and processors in Wisconsin

What people do have to be thankful for this year is that prices for turkey are not rising dramatically with the pandemic. Meijer store brand turkeys are 31 cents per pound, regardless of size, with an mPerks coupon (without it, it's 39 cents). Frozen butterball turkeys come in at 99 cents per pound at most retailers, while Walmart is offering frozen Shady Brook, Honeysuckle White and Jennie-O brand turkeys for 68 cents per pound. These prices are nearly identical to 2019 figures.

However, turkey producers are still experiencing some issues, including booked-up processors and a demand for meat alternatives along with smaller gatherings and demand for smaller birds.

The Associated Press reports that a Kroger survey found nearly half of American households plan to only celebrate Thanksgiving with their immediate family, leading to more turkey breasts on the shelves rather than whole birds. The retail giant also anticipates a rising demand for plant-based meat options due to a rise in healthy eating across the country.

Despite turkey garnering a $4.3 billion dollar industry, interest is waning, Dee-Ann Durbin writes. 

"Turkey sales have even been falling at Thanksgiving as consumers explore alternatives, according to Nielsen data," Durbin wrote. "Last November, Americans spent $643 million on turkey, down 3.5% from the previous year. They spent $1.9 billion on beef, which was up 4%. And they spent $12 million — or more than double the prior year — on alternatives like plant-based meat."

Even with that outlook, Wisconsin processing plants are getting booked up across the state well in advance. Manuel Garnica, plant manager at the processing company Twin Cities Pack based in Clinton, said in August that they were booked through November for poultry orders, including turkey. He said he's seen more people interested in buying local this year, which has led 2020 to be Twin Cities' busiest year in the history of the company.

"A lot of other processors shut down. We were blessed by not having to shut down, ever, we never stopped," Garnica said. "There's ... a processor about a hundred miles away and they shut down, and we were able to take those customers and help them out when they were in a pinch. We have been real busy."

He said the company didn't raise prices either even as other plants shut down due to COVID-19. And being the only organic processing plant in the area, they've seen demand increase for that niche product, too. Even chicken feet are becoming a more popular product because of a claim that they're good for you. Overall, Garnica said people will pay more for local quality.

"People are willing to (pay more) for the quality. If it's local, all we have to stand by is our reputation, so they're willing to do that," Garnica said. "Bigger places can probably do it cheaper, but you're not going to have that personalized experience and that small-batch care."

Ryan Redmann, co-owner of Brandon Meats and Sausage in Fond du Lac County, said his business has not had major changes in demand or bookings for the holidays, but that the entire year has been busier than ever due to the pandemic.

"Everything started with Covid and we've been pretty well busy all the way through, so it hasn't really let up," Redmann said. "Size-wise, the orders we're getting are the same as what (the customers) have always gotten. I wouldn't say it's a lot less."

A small roasted turkey breast is perfect for serving a smaller group on Thanksgiving.

What Thanksgiving looks like for people across the state

We asked readers what they plan to do for their Thanksgiving holiday, and the responses were across the board: some plan to video chat with their families, while others are doing the same song and dance as any other year.

Tari Costello of Waupun said she will be celebrating with her extended family over Zoom, with whom she normally has a large gathering in western Wisconsin, but she will spend the day with her sons and their girlfriends in person. "We will meet via Zoom to enjoy each other's company!" she said.

Lori Gross of Green Bay shared a similar plan to celebrate with her immediate family and grandparents while foregoing the usual 25-person dinner. She said she usually roasts a ham and the biggest turkey she can find, but instead, they are cooking a 10-pound chicken. After dinner, she plans to video chat with her family too.

"Instead of having four different pies, the kids voted and we will be having one apple pie," Gross said. "It's kind of a bummer because it's the one holiday where you can gather and sit and visit without the hassle of exchanging presents."

Lori Lemmenes, who lives near Waupun, said she is having the usual gathering and is inviting anybody who's comfortable going. It's a different story for Waupun natives Mari and John Loomans, though, as they will not be celebrating the holiday with their family because of health concerns. They said their granddaughter and granddaughter-in-law both work with COVID-19 patients and they don't want to risk infection.

"They don't want to take the risk of John and I getting anything," Mari said. "Our daughter and her husband will spend some time together with us, picking up meals from Lomira Methodist Church as they are collecting food for the Lomira Food Pantry."