‘A smile through the mask’ and a meal to-go: How Thanksgiving dinners for those in need will be different this year

Potatoes, rice, chicken and green beans in to-go containers for those in need at the Chosen 300 Ministries in Philadelphia.

Potatoes, rice, chicken and green beans in to-go containers for those in need at the Chosen 300 Ministries in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

For the past 142 years, the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission has offered meals to those experiencing homelessness or otherwise “hurting” three times a day, year-round, including Thanksgiving Day.

According to CEO of the Rescue Mission, Jeremy Montgomery, Thanksgiving dinner pre-pandemic included 32 turkeys, pounds of mac cheese, and sweet potato pies as far as the eye could see — but it was also an opportunity to provide a sense of community to people who may have few opportunities to sit down to a home-cooked meal and fellowship.

“We’re a firm believer that … we can also provide them the same dignity and respect to enjoy Thanksgiving like any others that are in their homes,” said Montgomery.

Sherica Douglas hands out fresh fruit with hot food at the Chosen 300 Ministries.
Sherica Douglas hands out fresh fruit with hot food at the Chosen 300 Ministries. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Yet new coronavirus restrictions, which went into effect Friday, offer an additional shakeup to what the already amended Thanksgiving dinner will look like this year and the sense of “community” will be even more limited.

Montgomery said the organization had originally rented out a 40-by-80 foot tent and obtained a dining permit from the city so they could seat 60 people at individual, socially distant tables.

There were going to be screens set up in the tent so guests could watch the football game during three different mealtimes.

When cases surged and the city implemented new restrictions, however, those plans had to be scrapped, even though the dining permit was still valid.

The line to receive hot food from Chosen 300 Ministries during their regular Wednesday meal on Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia.
The line to receive hot food from Chosen 300 Ministries during their regular Wednesday meal on Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“It’s the optics of setting up a tent, allowing the lingering, the congregating in the face of what could be even perceived in violation of the restrictions,” said Montgomery.

Similarly, Chosen 300, which serves its guests on the Wednesday and Friday of Thanksgiving week, says its religious service, one of its signature offerings, will still take place but outdoors at its West Philadelphia and Spring Garden locations.

And the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., which has been offering Thanksgiving Day dinner and an afternoon of board games for the past 25 years, is settling for a socially distanced event outdoors with a DJ playing music while guests pick up their meals.

All three organizations say their meals will all be packed to-go and the “community” environment hundreds rely on will come in bits and pieces.

For the Rescue Mission community will come by way of 20 high top tables, spread 10 feet apart in a parking lot equipped with handwashing stations.

“We want to be able to still allow an outdoor space for them not to have to enjoy that meal sitting in some alleyway or along the front stoop … but to still be able to do so while the meal is still hot on-premises,” said Montgomery.

Chosen 300 will still provide people with meals of collard greens, turkey, rolls and pumpkin pies — all homemade — to go.

Volunteers at the Chosen 300 Ministries prepare meals for those in need on Spring Garden Street.
Volunteers at the Chosen 300 Ministries prepare meals for those in need on Spring Garden Street. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“We do want to ensure that there is some sense of consistency and community here,” said Alesha Thomas with Chosen 300. “We do want to make it as special for them this holiday season as we possibly can and just letting them know that despite these significant challenges, we are there for them.”

Harven Auguste, the chapter chaplain with Alpha Phi Alpha and one of the event chairs, says the best they can offer in the form of fellowship is “a smile through the mask” this year and COVID care packs stocked with hand sanitizer and a mask.

Auguste said the “grab and go process is definitely not ideal, but for the sake of safety,” it’s what has to take place.

One concern that Auguste and Alpha Phi Alpha chapter president Amir Thorne have is they don’t know what to expect.

Volunteers at the Chosen 300 Ministries fill containers with hot food for those in need.
Volunteers at the Chosen 300 Ministries fill containers with hot food for those in need. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Food pantries have seen a rise in need since the start of the pandemic, which could mean a longer line. But the men also worry that with so many changes to regulations and general fears around the virus, some of their usual guests will skip out on this year’s dinner.

The fraternity is coordinating with local shelters to bring meals to their guests in case not as many people come to pick up food.

“Community and camaraderie may be lacking this year, but we still want to provide the service as much and as often as we can,” said Thorne.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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