Another scaled-back Thanksgiving

Updated: 2011-11-23 07:13


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Some are holding potluck dinners instead of springing for the entire feast. Others are staying home rather than flying. And a few are skipping the turkey altogether.

On this the fourth Thanksgiving since the economy sank, prices for everything from airline flights to groceries are going up, and some Americans are scaling back. Yet in many households, the occasion is too important to skimp on. Said one mother: "I don't have much to give, but I'll be cooking, and the door will be open."

Thanksgiving airfares are up 20 percent this year, and the average price of a gallon of gas has risen almost 20 percent, according to travel tracker AAA. Still, about 42.5 million people are expected to travel, the highest number since the start of the recession.

But even those who choose to stay home and cook for themselves will probably spend more. A 16-pound turkey and all the trimmings will cost an average of $49.20, a 13 percent jump from last year, or about $5.73 more, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, which says grocers have raised prices to keep pace with higher-priced commodities.

In Pawtucket, R.I., Jackie Galinis was among those looking for help to put a proper meal on the table. She stopped at a community center this week seeking a donated food basket. But by the time she arrived, all 300 turkeys had been claimed.

So Galinis, an unemployed retail worker, will make do with what's in her apartment. "We'll have to eat whatever I've got, so I'm thinking chicken," she said.

Then her eyes lit up. "Actually, I think I've got red meat in the freezer, some corned beef. We could do a boiled dinner."

Galinis has another reason to clear out her apartment's freezer: Her landlord is in the process of evicting her and her 3-year-old son. The unemployment rate in Pawtucket, a city struggling with the loss of manufacturing jobs, is 12.1 percent, well above the national average.

Carole Goldsmith of Fresno, Calif., decided she didn't need to have a feast, even if she could still afford it.

Goldsmith, an administrator at a community college in Coalinga, Calif., said she typically hosts an "over-the-top meal" for friends and family. This year, she canceled the meal and donated a dozen turkeys to two homeless shelters. She plans to spend Thursday volunteering before holding a small celebration Friday with soup, bread "and lots of gratitude."

"I think everybody is OK with it," she said. "They understand. Everybody is in a different place than they were a year ago."

In suburban Chicago, the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry got rid of turkey altogether. Last year, the pantry had a lottery in October to distribute 600 turkeys between almost 1,500 families.

The pantry's management has decided to give all of its families a choice between other kinds of meat — ground turkey, sliced chicken, fish sticks and hamburger patties — along with the other trappings of a Thanksgiving feast. The decision will save $16,000, money that can go to feeding the hungry for the rest of the year.

"Do we give turkeys and hams to half of the people or do we give them to none of them and put that money back in the general food budget?" said the pantry's executive director, Kathy Russell.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository is paying more for many basic items. Executive Director Kate Maehr said she recently ordered peanut butter that cost 38 percent more than just six months ago. And the increase comes at a bad time, when the economy has forced more families to resort to food pantries, she said.

Andrew Thomas, a mailroom worker for a Washington, D.C., law firm, had hoped to take his two children to see his grandmother in North Carolina. But with Christmas around the corner, Thomas concluded he needed to save money.

"We're just going to eat real good and stay home for this year," he said.

But George Gorham and his fiancé, Patricia Horner weren't deterred. They flew to Washington, D.C., from the West Coast and planned to rent a car to drive to Fort Bragg, N.C., to visit Gorham's son, an Army sergeant. They used frequent-flier miles and planned to use their trip to see the tourist attractions in the nation's capital.

Gorham said he still would have made the trip without his frequent-flier miles, but "it would have been more painful."

Thanksgiving travelers were also at the mercy of the weather. Forecasters warned of rain and scattered thunderstorms in much of the Northeast, with a mixture of snow and freezing rain expected in upstate New York and northern New England. Mountainous areas could see 4 to 8 inches of snow.

In Juneau, Alaska, the Rev. George Silides and his wife will bring turkey to a church potluck, but not much more. Like millions of others, Silides said, the couple was "feeling the economic pinch."

Juneau, Alaska's capital, is an expensive place to live. The only way in or out is by air or boat. Silides' wife now works as an English teacher to support their family of six.

In previous years, Stacy Hansen would either host a large Thanksgiving meal or fly from her Florida home to be with family in Minnesota. Not this year.

Hansen and her teenage son are staying home in Tarpon Springs, Fla., near Tampa. They picked out a 10-pound turkey and two frozen, buy-one-get-one-free pies at the supermarket. She can't afford to fly herself and her son north, and her two grown children can't afford to fly back to Florida.

"It's going to be a quiet Thanksgiving," she said. "We're going to be thankful for what we do have."

Galinis plans a similar holiday using whatever she can find.

"Even if I only had two nickels to rub together, I'd do something," she said. "I don't have much to give, but I'll be cooking and the door will be open."