Berkshire Food Project's communal meal will be pickup on Monday this year.
ADAMS, Mass. — After spearheading an inaugural community Thanksgiving dinner last fall, there were times this year when Brian and Ann Grande thought there would not be a second annual meal.
But while they know this year will look very different, they could not let a pandemic stop them from plating up turkey and the fixings for those in need.
"We want to show the town of Adams that First Congregational Church cares about its neighbors," Brian Grande said last week. "It's a small church. We might have maybe 90 members, but we have a good family there. We do a lot of outreach, and we want to show we care."
Grande said the community dinner served between 75 and 100 people last year in person. This year, he is hoping to send out 100 prepackaged meals to people in Adams, Cheshire and Savoy, and he will be signing up potential recipients through Tuesday.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of those programs are making the switch from communal, sit-down dinners to delivery and/or grab-and-go models, including the All Saints Berkshire Episcopal Church and the Berkshire Food Project in North Adams and the Christian Center in Pittsfield.
As always, the Berkshire Food Project kicks off the holiday week with its annual meal on Monday.
The early start to the festivities began years ago in an effort not to conflict with another community Thanksgiving meal in the Steeple City, and even after the earlier meal stopped serving, recipients of the Berkshire Food Project said they preferred to keep the Monday "holiday," BFP Executive Director Kim McMann said.
"Normally, our Thanksgiving meal is a huge community gathering where we invite everyone, regardless of their ability to pay," she said. "This year, it is truly just another meal that we're distributing. That's disappointing, but it is what it is.
"We're preparing a Thanksgiving meal for the people relying on us for meals week in and week out. We're going to do about 300. If a lot of people show up who don't normally rely on us, we're going to be stretched."
In years past, the Berkshire Food Project would serve between 400 to 450 meals between noon and 6 p.m. on the Monday before Thanksgiving.
"If a family came that could afford to pay, they'd often put a check in the mail to us," she said. "So it would be a fund-raising and awareness-raising event for us."
This year, the focus is on the population regularly served by the program's regular Monday-Wednesday-Friday meal distribution and food pantry -- a population that has grown during the pandemic.
McMann said that a busy month for the Berkshire Food Project before the pandemic would have meant serving 3,500 meals, maybe 4,000 in a busy November. Since March, it has been distributing between 6,000 and 8,000 meals each month.
"In April and May, there were really big numbers -- 8,100 or something," she said. "Now we're down to about 6,000. But we're seeing a rise in numbers. People are closing restaurants, so people will lose jobs again.
"One thing we've seen more of during COVID is people working minimum wage who are working so many hours they don't have time to cook, so they stop by here to pick up a meal. It's impacted people in different ways."
At the Christian Center in Pittsfield, they have been serving several dozen people each day -- in person, under a tent, when the weather has allowed -- according to Kim Ryan. On Thursday, its volunteers will deliver 400 Thanksgiving meals, largely to elderly residents.
In years past, that number would have included 100 or more people eating dinner in person at the center and another 40 to 50 people volunteering Tuesday through Thursday to make it happen.
"This year, instead of fresh butternut squash and mashed potatoes, we're doing frozen butternut squash and baked potatoes," Ryan said. "Right now, we have 15 volunteers who are going to be there on Thanksgiving morning preparing the meals. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, I'm going to be doing a lot of the prep work. … Instead of serving pies, we're going to bake 500 muffins.
"It's a little different, but it's still going to work."
One thing that has not changed: the outside support that the Christian Center receives.
"The Sheriff's Department cooks our turkeys, which is amazing," Ryan said. "I drop off 25 20-pound turkeys. They cook it, cut it all up, make gravy for us. They do that every year.
"We only have four ovens, it would be hard to do all that."
The Berkshire Food Project also gets a little help in putting together its Thanksgiving meals.
"First, the Capitol Restaurant stored our turkeys," McMann said. "This was important because this year there were a lot of questions about whether there would be enough turkeys. We needed to order them ahead, but we had nowhere to store them.
"Mark Meehan at the Capitol Restaurant stored them. We cooked them at the Break Room at Greylock Works. [Saturday], Aaron Oster from A-OK Berkshire Barbeque carves the turkeys. Those three restaurants are really vital at different points."
And First Congregational Church in Williamstown has been baking pies that will be sliced up and included in to-go containers to go with the turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and turnips, McCann said.
McCann said that eight volunteers will pack all the meals on Monday and get them out the door of the project, which is headquartered at North Adams' First Congregational Church.
"It's hard this year because we're limited to eight volunteers," she said. "In years past, we'd have Christmas music on the CD player and people would be elbow to elbow laughing. This year, everyone will be at their own table doing their work. It's just a really different Thanksgiving."
Ann and Brian Grande will be doing the bulk of the meal preparation on their own, cooking the birds at home and starting the prep work on Thursday afternoon, Brian said. As a former chef in the military, he has experience cooking for much larger crowds.
And he is happy to put that experience to use this week.
"Adams has a lot of older people, a lot of people who are homebound, a lot of veterans, things like that," Brian Grande said. "Pastor Mike [Mullany] is very interested in helping. We just want to help the people of Adams."
Any residents of Adams, Cheshire or Savoy interested in receiving a Thanksgiving Day meal from the First Congregational Church of Adams can email Brian Grande at firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name, address and phone number.
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