Food banks prepare for record numbers this Thanksgiving in Silicon Valley
Members of CityTeam San Jose gather and sort items for distribution on Thanksgiving, aiming to deliver Thanksgiving dinners to 4,000 households via the Mobile Food Pantry. Photo by Samantha Glenn.

As 2020 comes to a close, many Americans are yearning to celebrate the holidays with their loved ones and uphold yearslong traditions. However, as COVID-19 continues to spurn closures across the country and in our own backyard, the holiday season — starting with Thanksgiving — will look different from years past.

With COVID-19 shuttering businesses and upending people’s livelihoods, food banks across the Bay Area prepared for an influx of individuals and families looking for a warm meal this year.

Second Harvest of Silicon Valley CEO Leslie Bacho began preparing for the turkey-themed holiday over the summer, while also serving double the number of meals per month due to the pandemic.

“This year we’re serving 500,000 people a month, and what we’ve been seeing in the past few weeks is a bit of uptick in the numbers at some of our sites,” she said.

Bacho told San José Spotlight that while Second Harvest usually sees an uptick at the holidays, this year’s influx directly correlates with COVID-19’s effects, such as nationwide economic issues, housing instability and Santa Clara County’s return to the restrictive purple tier.

“We know it’s going to be a tough economic time for families over the holidays,” Bacho said.

To ease the stress of the season, Second Harvest allocated nearly 20,000 turkeys for meal partners and some grocery distribution sites across Santa Clara County. To adhere to COVID-19 safety measures, Second Harvest packages and boxes more than 75% of the food to be distributed, limiting person-to-person contact.

Bacho visited one drive-through site in San Jose Nov. 20 and saw families receiving whole chickens, a 20-pound box of mixed produce, a box with dairy products and a box with dried and canned goods.

“This is typically what we do at the holidays,” she said. “We serve a very diverse set of clients so not everyone is having traditional cranberry and gravy at their holiday meal. We try to source items that are really versatile.”

Six of Second Harvest’s partner organizations will be serving Thanksgiving meals this week, three of which require appointments to reserve a space. The partner organizations are St. Vincent de Paul in San Francisco, Martha’s Kitchen in San Jose, St. Vincent de Paul Homeless Help Center in San Mateo, St. Joseph’s Family Center — Lord’s Table in Gilroy, St. Anthony’s Dining Room in Menlo Park, and CityTeam San Jose.

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Martha’s Kitchen followed its weekly schedule of Tuesday and Wednesday dinners, with both meals this week being Thanksgiving-focused.

Martha’s Kitchen Executive Director Bill Lee said the organization works with 78 groups in nine counties. At Martha’s Kitchen on Willow Street in San Jose, Lee said everyone will receive turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberries and other fixings.

“We are about feeding the hungry with dignity,” he said. “It’s Thanksgiving, so people should get a proper Thanksgiving meal.”

For holidays of years past, the team would decorate tables with placemats and centerpieces, and have some star volunteers, including the San Jose Cadets and the San Francisco 49ers. This year’s meals will be all grab-and-go — but Lee said musicians will still come to play to make the day a bit more special.

Tamara Wheeler, vice president of marketing and communications for CityTeam San Jose, said her organization will serve dinner from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. Wheeler estimates CityTeam will serve 400 guests and will also distribute gloves, beanies and hygiene kits. All meals will be to go.

“We’re serving at least three times as many households just because of the needs that have surfaced because of the pandemic and so much job loss,” she said.

The organization serves meals daily on Charles Street and has initiated a Mobile Food Pantry during the pandemic. The Mobile Food Pantry, serving 24 neighborhoods monthly, is set to deliver 4,000 Thanksgiving meals this week.

“It is definitely something everyone, everywhere is adapting to — what Thanksgiving is going to look like this year,” Wheeler said. “There’s a lot of gratitude… not just for Thanksgiving, but also just the reassurance and reliance of having hope and help.”

While this may be the first Thanksgiving in need for some families, nonprofit leaders want to be sure their doors are open to everyone who needs help.

“We know it is hard for people to ask for help; there can be so much stigma and so much embarrassment,” Bacho said. “This is a time when all of us need some extra help, and we really encourage people to reach out.”

To find where to get a free Thanksgiving meal this week, click here or visit Second Harvest Silicon Valley’s page here.

Contact Grace Stetson at [email protected] and follow her @grace_m_stetson on Twitter.

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