The cost of food is rising at a slower pace than last year, but few Baltimoreans will notice.
Groceries are not getting any cheaper, and even Charm City’s most frugal shoppers probing the aisles for sauerkraut and Stove Top stuffing ahead of Thanksgiving weekend may feel their wallets tighten.
“What people really want is for food prices to decline,” said Malik Crawford, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But that is not happening, according to a Tuesday report released by the agency.
So what does that mean for the average consumer looking to put a turkey on the table? The Banner analyzed prices across six Baltimore-area stores for 11 traditional Thanksgiving foods in an effort to locate where shoppers can get the most for their dollar.
“The reality is prices are as high now as they’ve ever been,” said Phil Lempert, a food industry analyst and self-proclaimed supermarket guru.
Why is everything still so expensive?
Oil and gas prices have helped keep the cost of groceries high, Crawford said. In Baltimore, where food prices are generally cheaper, the cost of groceries has largely stagnated. Across the country, food prices continued to tick up through October, according to the Labor Statistics report.
The Consumer Price Index, a metric used to track inflation, showed prices increasing for food in urban areas by less than a percentage point from September to October. Last year, that number was about one percentage point higher from month to month — indications that food inflation has now significantly slowed.
People have been complaining about the high price of groceries, Lempert said, leaving the leading grocery chains to duel over reticent customers during the two months when shoppers consume the most.
“They think, ‘If I can get you into my store to buy Thanksgiving food and you’re satisfied, it’s likely that you’re going to come to my store for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa,’” he said.
“We’re seeing more price wars than we’ve seen in years.”
What’s the price difference among stores?
So how will those cost battles play out on your end? We headed to six area stores — Save A Lot in Upton, Lidl in Harundale, Walmart in Ellicott City, Whole Foods in Towson, Giant in Hampden and Aldi in Patterson Park — to find out.
We searched 11 items of typical Thanksgiving fare for price comparisons: a frozen turkey, instant mashed potatoes, stuffing, sweet potatoes, potatoes, butter, gravy mix, canned green beans, canned pumpkin puree, canned cranberry sauce and canned sauerkraut.
To no one’s surprise, Whole Foods had the most expensive turkey, but the price range across all the stores was quite wide.
The most affordable bird found at the retailer’s 300 Towson Row location was priced at just under $3 per pound, amounting to $45.09 in total. In contrast, the cheapest turkey we found overall — a 15-pound, store-brand “Honeysuckle Hen” at the Save A Lot at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue —was $14.85, which works out to less than a dollar per pound.
Towson’s Whole Foods also sold the most expensive canned foods, including pumpkin, sauerkraut, green beans and cranberry sauce. But Stove Top stuffing and potatoes were priced higher at the Giant at 1020 West 41st St. Butter and gravy cost more at the Save A Lot. The priciest instant mashed potatoes were found at the Harundale Lidl.
For Stove Top stuffing, Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce and sauerkraut prices, your best bet is the Lidl in Harundale (7700 Ritchie Highway), where we found the cheapest prices for those items.
For fresh produce, sweet potato prices were lowest at the 3200 North Ridge Walmart Supercenter in Ellicott City, whereas regular russet potato prices were lowest inside an Aldi at 3250 East Fayette St.
How much will it cost your family?
To figure out how much local families are likely to spend on a nice holiday meal, we broke down the price per ounce for each item among the six different stores to calculate costs for a dinner for four.
We determined that shakes out to: one six-ounce pack of stove-top stuffing, one six-pound turkey, 4 1/2 pounds of sweet potatoes, 4 1/2pounds of russet potatoes, one 15-ounce can of pumpkin puree, two 15-ounce cans of green beans, one 32-ounce pack of sauerkraut, one pound of butter, one 12-ounce jar of gravy, two 4-ounce packs of instant mashed potatoes and two 14-ounce cans of cranberry sauce.
In summary: we expected leftovers.
Customers would be able to access the least expensive ingredients overall for their Thanksgiving meal at Aldi, data showed. Close behind was Harundale’s Lidl, followed by the Walmart Supercenter in Ellicott City.
At Whole Foods, a family of four would find themselves spending double what they paid at Aldi for similar food items, largely due to the retailer’s turkey. Trailing behind, Hampden’s Giant had food items that would also cost a modest amount more than its four counterparts.
Tips from a guru
About 220 million turkeys are projected to grace grocery coolers ahead of the Thanksgiving weekend, an increase of nearly a quarter when compared to last year — the time a substantial number of birds were wiped out due to the avian flu, according to Phil Lempert.
But unlike turkeys, the cost of many canned goods are rising, he said. Since volatile weather reduced the yield of cranberry bogs, the cost of canned cranberry sauce is projected to increase along with other canned vegetables like corn and green beans. “The average consumer doesn’t really relate what’s going on with the climate to our food,” Lempert said, “but it all starts with the farm.” Be sure to compare fresh versus canned items to make sure you’re getting the best deal.
For major retailers, the “glimmer of hope” in maintaining a steady food supply, Lempert said, lies in investments to indoor and vertical farming near metro areas, such as Baltimore’s Bowery farm location, which supplies food to Amazon and Whole Foods, among others.
The lower cost of transport and year-round crops may help stores reduce prices for consumers.
Lempert told The Banner another initiative taken by retailers has been the practice of “bundling.” Walmart’s ready-to-bake basket including potatoes and frozen pies fit for 10 people and costs consumers around $70. Costco has promoted similar deals, as has Target, which boasts an up to $25 turkey dinner accompanied by a cream of mushroom soup.
But according to the supermarket guru, as well as The Banner’s data, Baltimoreans are expected to find their most affordable turkey dinner at their nearest Aldi.
One reason, Lempert said, is the store’s reliance on their own brand items, which have to meet criteria relating to certain preservatives and additives in order to be sold.
“Consumers, frankly, spend more money with these brands who are being more thoughtful, who are really looking towards the future.”