‘Unlike anything we’ve ever seen’: Bay Area charities brace for a pandemic Thanksgiving

Like so many things this year, Thanksgiving will look a little different — particularly for the thousands of people expected to line up for free holiday meals at charitable kitchens all over the Bay Area.

More people than ever will probably need a meal. More safety measures than ever will be in place. More takeout clamshell boxes than ever will be in use — in fact, takeout will be the only way to dig in.

And fewer volunteers will be on hand to do the preparing and serving, because too many cooks in a crowded kitchen just isn’t safe: Scores of volunteers who normally pitch in on the holidays inside the bustling, crowded kitchens and dining rooms have been turned away and asked to find other ways to help.

Since closing its indoor dining room in March at the start of the pandemic, St. Anthony Dining Room in San Francisco has been serving takeout meals in disposable containers and inviting guests to eat them inside large tents set up outside.

For Thanksgiving, St. Anthony will add more tents, more tables and more turkeys. It usually serves 2,400 meals a day but on Thanksgiving it is expecting to serve at least 3,000.

The tents will keep the rain out, said Rachel Ball, St. Anthony’s communications manager, but they can’t keep the cold out. “There’s not much we can do about that,” Ball said. “We’re looking forward to getting guests back into the dining room as soon as possible.”

At nearby Glide Memorial Church, the kitchen is expecting to serve 2,500 Thanksgiving meals, up from the usual 2,000. Some will be eaten inside three large tents outside the front door, and some will be delivered to homeless camps by volunteers.

Guests socially distance as they line up for a meal at Martin de Porres House of Hospitality. Bay Area charities have had to redo Thanksgiving for thousands.

“Glide’s work has never been more important — or more in demand,” said Glide President Karen Hanrahan. “While 2020 has been a year of great challenge, it has also been a year of great resilience, resistance and rebirth.”

It’s also been a year of change, said Glide Dining Room Director George Gundry, and that will be reflected on the Thanksgiving menu. Stuffing is out, he said, and macaroni and cheese is in.

“Our usual stuffing purveyor couldn’t provide any,” he said. “We were stiffed on stuffing.”

At North Marin Community Services, staff converted the food pantry at 1907 Novato Blvd. — which is open every Tuesday — into a drive-through so that staff could place meals and groceries in car trunks and avoid in-person contact following shelter-in-place orders.

Despite the adjustments, Cheryl Paddack, the chief executive officer, said the food pantry is “thriving.” Prior to the pandemic, the organization served up to 140 households a week. Now, they serve meals for up to 350 households a week.

Project Open Hand, designated an essential business during the pandemic, is continuing to serve hot and frozen meals to people in need in San Francisco and Alameda counties. Two locations — 730 Polk St. and Curry Senior Center — serve hot meals every day and will be open during the holidays.

Although social distancing guidelines will prevent Project Open Hand from hosting its annual holiday gatherings, Vice President of Operations Jonathan Jump said the organization will still provide a holiday “takeaway experience” for people who are picking up or being delivered meals. Jump said the organization hopes to provide gift bags with every meal to brighten the season.

Both donations and volunteers have been restricted at San Francisco’s Martin de Porres House of Hospitality because of the pandemic. Staff there formed pandemic “bubbles” in an effort to safely continue operations.

Sliced bread for meals at Martin de Porres House of Hospitality in San Francisco.

Martin de Porres typically has more than 200 volunteers helping prepare the Thanksgiving meal. This year, just eight people will assemble the organization’s takeout meals.

At St. Anthony, a similarly small fraction of volunteers will be on hand: Just 10 of the usual 180 volunteers will staff the food prep conveyor belt and none will interact with guests, for safety reasons.

Loaves & Fishes Family Kitchen, a nonprofit in San Jose that serves free hot meals on weekdays throughout San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, has nearly tripled its service due to the pandemic, increasing from serving its usual 2,500 meals a day to serving 7,000 a day.

During the holidays, the number of clients usually increases by 25%, but Gisela Bushey, the chief executive officer, said that this year the organization expects to serve an additional 5,000 holiday meals a day.

“The pandemic has shined a light on how precarious people’s situations are here in our community,” Bushey said. “Folks who never thought that in a million years they would ever need food assistance were having to come for food assistance. Folks who were working two jobs to try and cobble enough to pay their expenses, saw those jobs disappear and found themselves not able to meet even the most basic expenses.”

Cups of split pea soup await bagging for guests at Martin de Porres House of Hospitality in San Francisco.

Bushey said the pandemic has caused the organization to forgo the communal aspect that comes from sitting down with folks to chat during a meal, but these connections will be especially missed during the holiday season when people arrive at Loaves & Fishes to pick up individually wrapped meals and leave immediately.

Because of coronavirus restrictions, the organization has reduced the size of its volunteer groups from 25 to 12, with core staff members filling in many gaps. Loaves & Fishes will open additional volunteer slots for food preparation and meal delivery to meet a higher demand during the holidays.

“This is going to make the holidays unlike anything we’ve ever seen in 40 years,” Bushey said.

San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Nora Mishanec contributed to this report.

Steve Rubenstein and Vanessa Arredondo are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: srubenstein@sfchronicle.com, vanessa.arredondo@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @SteveRubeSF, @v_anana

Originally published by St. Anthony’s Foundation: Source