Thanksgiving Turkey Shortage for Recession-Hit Families

VIDEO: Good Housekeepings Rosemary Ellis explains how to prepare for company.
WATCH How to Survive Visiting Family

On a busy downtown street, Scott Croft and a team of volunteers from the Denver Rescue Mission are eagerly standing by, waiting for the seasonal stream of drivers who usually pull over this time of year to unload thousands of donated frozen turkeys.

This year, they've done a lot of waiting.

"We've gotten kind of a slow start," says Croft, pacing the side of the road wearing a bright yellow safety vest.

From California to Connecticut, food banks and charities nationwide report that donations of frozen turkeys—the cornerstone of a traditional Thanksgiving meal — have fallen dramatically this holiday season.

"This year has been really tough," said Denver Rescue Mission's Greta Walker. "We started the turkey drive on November 1 and about ten days into it, we had zero turkeys. And I started to get really worried."

As of late Sunday, the mission was still 2,000 turkeys short of its goal.

To get the word out Walker has started blitzing Denver's local airwaves, appearing on radio shows and giving TV and newspaper interviews. She's also combing her Rolodex, dialing up past corporate donors and some of Denver's professional teams and athletes hoping she can help reach a goal of collecting 6,000 turkeys before Thanksgiving.

"We know that people have been struggling with the economy," said Walker. "We can tell with our numbers everyday. Our meal service programs have gone up 20 percent. People may be a little tighter with their pocketbooks this year."

Walker says the turkey shortage ripples out to smaller charities around the Denver area. That's because each year, the Denver Rescue Mission provides 5,000 turkeys to about 80 other charities and organizations including Volunteers of America.

Last year the Colorado branch of Volunteers of America asked the Denver Rescue Mission for 200 turkeys. Due to a growing need this year, they're now asking for 1,000 frozen birds.

"Across the board, need is going up and people are tightening their wallets," said Allison Kuthy of Volunteers of America. "It gets tough to do our jobs."

Kuthy says the shortage this year means Volunteers of America may have to dig into its own pocket to make up the turkey gap, taking money away from other important programs.

"When turkey donations are down, it means we can't provide the same kind of services we normally provide in the community," Kuthy said. "Things like services for seniors, the homeless, children and victims of domestic violence."

Thanksgiving Turkey Donations Down in Rough Economy

The fall in turkey donations this year is also compounded by a rise in turkey prices.

"Retail prices will be up, on average, about 20 percent this year," said Thomas Elam of Indiana-based FarmEcon, an agricultural industry consulting firm.

Elam blames rising costs on a reduction in turkey supply and production this year along with a steep jump in the price of corn and soybeans farmers feed growing birds. Now, higher prices at the supermarket may be causing fewer people to buy an extra turkey to donate.

"You're not going to see the kind of deep, deep discounts and widespread discounts that we had last year," Elam tells ABC News.

As word has gotten out about the need for turkeys, however, the pace of donations is starting to pick up in some places.

On one recent afternoon, employees with a Denver insurance brokerage, IMA Financial Group, parked two cars outside the Denver Rescue Mission's shelter on Lawrence Street.

Sandy Harvath said she and her colleagues had heard about the shortage and decided to donate 25 turkeys.

"Everybody within their own families is trying to scrape and save and I think it's a little bit harder. People aren't quite as generous these days," Harvath said.

Scott Croft uses his radio to call fellow volunteers for more help unloading the birds. The turkeys will be put onto a truck and taken to large storage freezers that are only now starting to look less empty.

"It makes me really happy," says shelter resident Joe Smith as the truck slowly fills with future Thanksgiving dinners. "It makes me feel really good."