Mission Message: Thanksgiving Baskets – More than a Holiday Meal

"For many churches that organize Thanksgiving meals, their Holiday outreach is not just a one-month, one-meal effort."

Helping those in need - housed and homeless, families and those experiencing the holidays alone – have a traditional Thanksgiving meal is a familiar part of the cycle of church life. Congregations collect boxes of stuffing and mashed potatoes, ask their members to donate the extra turkey their grocery gives out with the trimmings, and work with their local food banks and feeding programs to serve a meal, distribute Thanksgiving boxes, or both. Many members of our congregations volunteer to cook, serve, and do dishes at community Thanksgivings, as well as put together and deliver Thanksgiving baskets.

"One of the shocks of the pandemic was the realization that, as Thanksgiving 2020 approached and demands upon food banks doubled, the supply chains we take for granted were failing...excess birds that have traditionally stocked food pantries during holidays simply didn’t exist and couldn’t be created out of thin air."

For many it begins the Advent season and its call to be charitable as well as contemplative; part of a practice of Gratitude that can buffer a holiday that tends to segue into a wildly commercial and acquisitive couple of months. It heralds near-future requests to donate to toy drives, to contribute on Giving Tuesday, to fund Christmas dinners, and to make Stewardship commitments for the New Year, and inspires feelings of warmth, unity, goodwill - and, often, cynicism. The regularity of food drives, especially those around the holidays, emphasize as well as any other witness that for good or ill, as Jesus admonishes, the poor will always be with us - every year and every season. Collecting stuffing and socks can feel perfunctory, but it can also be an invitation to step into one’s own charitable heart, and to walk the path of the liturgical new year in a way that considers both others and the Other.

One of the shocks of the pandemic was the realization that, as Thanksgiving 2020 approached and demands upon food banks doubled, the supply chains we take for granted were failing. COVID closedowns earlier that year meant agriculture workers could not tend the farms that produce Thanksgiving turkeys, and the excess birds that have traditionally stocked food pantries during holidays simply didn’t exist and couldn’t be created out of thin air. For the churches and other organizations that distribute Thanksgiving baskets, this meant a scramble to acquire not only turkeys but chickens and games hens – anything that could make a meal for larger families in their COVID pods or groups that were restricted to smaller numbers to reduce exposure to a disease disproportionally affected income challenged and minority populations.

For example, in 2020 Central, Van Nuys needed 450 turkeys – whole birds, breasts, or chicken/game hen substitutions – to meet the demand. With many individuals bringing what supplies they could find, help from other food banks, and a crew of volunteers, everyone in the lines that stretched around a four-block area in their neighborhood received what had been promised. Central’s Pastor Marsha Harris says that when four or five families who had not signed up for Thanksgiving distribution showed up afterwards in case there was anything left over there were just enough turkeys left for their Thanksgiving meal – “God working,” she called it. In the end, over 1880 people were fed.

“It's heartbreaking how many families now need to stop on their way home from the school next door, just to feed their children.”

In 2020 food pantries and the people and congregations that support them met this challenge – often through creative thinking, sharing, and cooperation with each other (and in the SWCA Synod, support from congregation and conference members who dug deep) – but the void of food insecurity, income inequality, and a too-small social safety net was, and remains, exposed.

This year food pantries and feeding programs in many of our COVID-impacted areas are facing less a problem of turkey and trimmings shortages as a combination of increased need and donor fatigue – although supply chain problems continue. At Central, weekly distribution went from an average of 200 family units, to over 350 at the beginning of the pandemic, to 450 by the time of Thanksgiving distribution – and now in 2021 they expect to distribute Thanksgiving to more than 600 households – a 50% increase since last year.

They can do it if they are able to order in bulk ahead of time – but they will need donations during a time of donor fatigue, when many those who have contributed in the past have themselves been impacted by the pandemic, or have answered so many requests that more seems impossible – and let’s face it; next year there will be another demand for turkeys, for boxes of mashed potatoes, for cans of sweet potatoes, for socks. What can contributing to seasonal programs like Central’s, for this one meal, really do?

A lot.

For many churches that organize Thanksgiving meals, their Holiday outreach is not just a one-month, one-meal effort. Many have year-round feeding ministries: Central has had a food distribution program since October 2019 through the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank Mobile Food Pantry, expanding their weekly distribution in response to the COVID-19 crisis with county grants, donations from community grocery stores, and support from the Twin Valleys Conference. With a Love Neighbor Grant from the SWCA Synod, Central was able to buy a commercial freezer, significantly increasing their ability to serve those who need food assistance in the area – a working-class neighborhood where many people work in service and food industries – jobs hit hard by the pandemic and not yet at full recovery. “It's heartbreaking,” says Pastor Marsha, “how many families now need to stop on their way home from the school next door, just to feed their children.”

In another part of the synod, three freeways distant and even further demographically, the A.C.T.I.O.N Food Pantry - hosted at Grace, Covina and a ministry of an interfaith partnership in the San Gabriel Valley Conference - is another year-round support program that extends itself to provide seasonal meals of faith, celebration and fellowship. Before the pandemic they served over 100 family units a week including single parents, the working poor, senior citizens, disabled, unemployed persons and the homeless; they now serve 300. An EOMT Food Distribution grant for purchasing regular as well as Thanksgiving meals, and a SWCA Love Neighbor grant to update electrical infrastructure for refrigeration, have proved essential to the feeding program.

For Central and A.C.T.I.O.N, Holiday food drives bolster their food stores, raise awareness of the work they do, build relationships in their local community, and give an opportunity for volunteers of every level to find their servant’s heart – often at year’s end, but also in many cases ongoing. Pastor Marsha Harris works with a team of high school and college age youth for twice-weekly food distribution, many of them unchurched but with a profound desire to help and serve. Awareness of other programs at Central that address food insecurity, such as a community garden with classes from Master Gardeners teaching how to produce fresh, healthy staples in the raised beds and container gardens optimal in an urban environment.

"Food pantry clients have faced almost 20 months of pandemic, job loss, family loss, uncertain schooling, and disruption of the social systems we take for granted. You and your faith community can come together, as you did last year, to give thanks together with them for God’s gifts."

Just as Thanksgiving is more than a family meal, a turkey is more than a platter of protein.

Food pantry clients have faced almost 20 months of pandemic, job loss, family loss, uncertain schooling, and disruption of the social systems we take for granted. You and your faith community can come together, as you did last year, to give thanks together with them for God’s gifts. It’s likely your congregation supports a Thanksgiving meal distribution – reach out to find out how to help them, but at the same time, explore how to help them beyond this season and throughout the year.

To assist Central, Van Nuys, you can donate directly to provide Thanksgiving turkeys before November 2. You can also sign up here to join Central’s packing and distribution crew.

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