As she picked up a weekly supply of groceries at the food pantry at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, Jayme Perara thought ahead to Thanksgiving Day. In holidays past, she has served her family turkey, as tradition calls.
But this year, the Franciscans at St. Anthony decided to forgo the traditional bird and hand out chicken instead. With turkey prices rising, and more families falling on hard times, the decision was difficult but clear. Chicken would not kindle the holiday spirit, perhaps, but it would feed more people. Nowadays, that has to come first.
“Our mission is to provide a lot of people with a lot of food,” said Joyce Lonergan, director of the Franciscan Food Center at St. Anthony. “There are a few people who really want turkey, but most people really just want food.”
With the money it saved by handing out chicken, the pantry was able to give families 15 items of food for the holiday, instead of the usual 12, she said.
For families who describe the pantry as a lifeline, the decision made sense. But it hurt just the same, pricking at a persistent feeling of going without.
“It’s a little sad. It’s a tradition, and families look forward to having turkey,” Perara said. “But they’re doing what they have to do.”
Charities call the move a practical if painful response to a trend those who turn to them for help are all too familiar with: rising food prices. The average cost of a 16-pound turkey has risen from less than $18 to more than $22 in just two years, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, which cited rising consumer demand as the primary cause.
Surprisingly, food pantries, which buy in bulk, pay more for turkeys than individuals, who benefit from Thanksgiving sales. That has spurred some pantries to hand out grocery gift cards, which Julie LaFontaine calls “plastic turkeys.”
“It gets you the best bang for the buck,’ said LaFontaine, who directs a pantry in Gloucester, the Open Door. “And it honors the Thanksgiving tradition.”
The pantry gives out more than 500 turkeys and then raises money for $10 gift cards to help families buy their own.
The Greater Boston Food Bank will distribute 40,000 turkeys to food pantries this holiday. But with more people looking for help, pantries needed a lower-cost alternative.
“Unfortunately, 40,000 turkeys didn’t fill the need” of the pantries, which distribute the turkey and side dishes to needy families, said Erin Caron, a spokesman for the food bank.
Chickens, which are smaller, are more economical for individuals and couples.
“I think the most important thing is that we’re providing a meal on Thanksgiving,” she said.
This year, the food bank paid $17 a turkey, up from $13 in 2010.
“You want everybody to enjoy the holiday the way we are fortunate enough to,” she said.
Craig Richov, director of the state’s farm viability program, said turkey prices have been steadily rising, spurring food banks to divert money to other items. “It’s more efficient that way,” he said.
In Brockton, Catholic Charities turned to chicken to supplement turkeys and other holiday groceries.
“We had to lower the number we could give away,” said director Beth Chambers. “It’s getting more expensive, and we don’t have enough turkeys to go around.”
Some 700 families have signed up for turkeys, she said, and an additional 275 will receive chickens.
Charity officials said they have distributed chickens in the past to make sure that more people get a meal on Thanksgiving, but that higher prices and growing demand had forced more groups to do so.
Project Bread reports that food insecurity, defined as having limited or uncertain access to food, has risen to nearly 12 percent in Massachusetts, up 43 percent since the recession began in 2008.
Despite higher food costs, some charities have been able to hand out more Thanksgiving supplies.
United Way, for instance, distributed 7,000 turkeys in Greater Boston, up 40 percent from last year, when it cost $30 for the makings of a full turkey dinner. This year, it cost about $40.
“It was definitely a big jump this year,” said Katie Ward of the United Way. “We anticipated food costs were going to go up and that there would be a very strong need.”
At St. Anthony, paying more to buy in bulk makes little sense at a time when more families are in want.
“When a member can buy a turkey for less than our acquisition cost, we’re just leaving money on the shelf,” Lonergan said. “And if we get turkey, but don’t have enough for everybody, that creates an unequal situation.”
A handful of centers have switched to chicken, and others are considering it for next year, she said.
For the people who turn to St. Anthony, there were mixed emotions. Nirda Pimentel, 43, said the holiday wouldn’t feel the same.
“I feel we’re not doing Thanksgiving,” she said. “It’s sad.”
Others said they were grateful for any help they could find.
“I’m all for the chicken,” said a man named John, who said the food had meant “everything” to him over the past five years.
“It really helps me get by,” he said. “And everyone here is so kind. Just a little bit of help goes a long way.”