Image: Smith family, Corona, Calif.
Bridget Smith/
From left, twins Aaron and Blake Smith, 6; Juliet, three months; and Evan, 4, smile in a photo taken in their Corona, Calif., neighborhood. Their mother, Bridget Smith, was one of many readers who said the economy was affecting their Thanksgiving this year.
By Elizabeth Chuck Reporter
updated 11/25/2008 10:16:13 AM ET 2008-11-25T15:16:13

For Bridget Smith and her family, Thanksgiving is going to be different this year. For one thing, they might not have a dining room table.

Smith, a Corona, Calif., mother of four, is putting her family's furniture up for sale on Craigslist in an effort to pay the mortgage, which is behind schedule.

“We’re trying to be as lighthearted as we can about this," she said. "I keep telling my husband when things pick up, we’ll get really nice things again.”

The Smiths, along with millions of other families across the country, have seen the economic downturn take a bite out of their Thanksgiving dinner, raising the prospect that a normally joyful holiday will be darkened by financial gloom this year.

Traditionally, the Smiths have hosted a Thanksgiving meal in their home with members of their extended family. David, Bridget's husband, sells security systems to car dealers. Money was never an issue in the past, but as auto sales have crumbled this year, so have his sales.

This year, “my sister-in-law is having to pay for everything,” said Bridget, who worked for Merrill Lynch before becoming a stay-at-home mom. “It’s really humbling.”

Table or not, the Smiths are still grateful for what they do have. David has been receiving unemployment benefits, and the family has applied for food stamps, but Bridget, 34, said, “We have the whole family and everyone’s pretty healthy, and that’s a lot to be thankful for.”

The Smiths aren't alone in their difficulties. One in eight Americans struggled to feed themselves even before this year’s economic slump, according to an Agriculture Department report published last week; 36.2 million adults and children didn't get enough food in 2007.

Food banks overwhelmed
And that number seems sure to rise this year.

“The demand is at a historic all-time high with our food banks,” said Ross Fraser, media relations for Feeding America, which provides food to more than 200 food banks across the country. “It has been increasing steadily over the last year or more, especially among the working poor and people who have experienced sudden job loss.”

The collapse of the housing market has been a major contributor, Fraser said. Many who never needed assistance before — mortgage brokers or real estate agents who made $70,000 last year but may only make $17,000 this year — are now among the 25 million people who get food from the foundation.

Major Market Indices

While the demand for food is up — Fraser says some recipients wait up to eight hours in line to receive a couple bags of groceries — donations also have risen, which Fraser believes is because of increased awareness of hunger in America.

Genevieve Armstrong of Tucson, Ariz., has only a part-time job, and she isn't sure her family will celebrate Thanksgiving.

“We thought about just maybe going for breakfast, just doing something very untraditional,” Armstrong, a 52-year-old mother of two college-age daughters, said. Armstrong works for company in the real estate industry and said she has been buying less and less food — even skipping dinner on a regular basis.

“I guess a good thing is I’ve lost 10 pounds. There’s always something bright you can find in a bad situation, right?”

Armstrong is trying to find a second job so she can finance the rest of her kids’ education. To save money, she started shopping at the Wal-Mart store in her area, buying only sale items. “I just buy the bare minimum to get by,” she said.

Wal-Mart is paying attention to customers like Armstrong. The nation’s biggest retailer recently announced a new plan called Operation Main Street.

“We anticipate saving customers $200 million” through the program, which discounts some of the most popular store items, Wal-Mart spokeswoman Melissa O’Brien said. The company has been promoting its $35 complete Thanksgiving dinner for eight, including a turkey and all the necessary ingredients.

The economic pain has been exacerbated by rising costs at the grocery store, said Stewart Ramsey of IHS Global Insight, an economic forecasting and consulting firm.

Even though prices of commodities like oil have been plummeting, grocery stores prices still reflect a surge in producer prices over the summer. “The pasta that you bought in the store last weekend is based on wheat that was grown months ago — potentially as much as a year ago," Ramsey said.

That formula applies to Thanksgiving dinners as well. Turkeys on sale in the supermarket now were fed corn back when corn was at a higher price.

With so much unsteadiness in the market, Ramsey says many companies will be hesitant to lower prices for a while.

But there is hope for the near future, Ramsey says. With the price of oil going down, fuel surcharges on food transport are being scaled back.

He said prices could start going down in certain sectors of the food chain in about six months.

While many readers shared stories of scaled-back Thanksgivings through’s FirstPerson reports , plenty also said they plan no changes to their feasts this year. One reason is that food is still relatively cheap in this country.

“In Asia, you have consumers that spend huge percentages of their incomes on staples — 40 percent and upwards,” Ramsey said. By contrast, Americans typically spend just 9.8 percent of their income on food, according to the USDA.

'Good will come back to you'
John Peacher of Martinsburg, W.Va., is struggling financially but counting on karma to get him through it.

“In times of difficulty, if you help others who are in need, that good will come back to you,” Peacher, a 54-year-old school custodian, said.

A 10-pound bag of rice to the local rescue mission, stuffed animals hand-sewn by his wife, Jane, for nurses to hand out to sick children at hospitals, and a little money saved up to charities he is familiar with — despite living paycheck to paycheck and stomaching increases in grocery bills, utilities and health care costs, the Peachers are contributing in any way they can.

“I try to give. If power companies, gas companies and auto companies would contribute to society, this would be the No. 1 country,” he said. For Thanksgiving, the Peachers’ son, who lives 30 miles away, will come home and enjoy a modest dinner with them and John’s mother-in-law, who lives in their town.

Bridget Smith, the California mother of four, never expected to be relying on government aid to pay for her family’s staples.

“The faces of the women waiting to get their vouchers so they can feed their children is haunting,” she said. “Most women look like they are in a really hard time in their lives.”

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