The coronavirus is notching yet another change to Central Vermont Thanksgivings this year. After 47 years, the Washington County Youth Service Bureau/Boys & Girls Clubs have passed the torch of its annual Thanksgiving dinner to National Life and Sodexo. No longer able to throw the in-person feast at Bethany Church in Montpelier because of the pandemic, the new partners are offering a pick-up this year and will continue to offer delivery.
In part, the change is a result of the dinner’s immense success over the years — serving 814 in 2019 (from less than 100 in its first year), alone — as it has stretched the abilities of the organization to handle the major solicitation and coordination effort required to make the meal happen. But it’s the pandemic that broke the camel’s back, as it stripped non-profit organizations around the country, the Youth Services Bureau included, of monetary donations, volunteers, fundraising opportunities, and more. “The pandemic made it all but impossible for staff to take on the event this year from a time, logistical, or safety standpoint,” explained Christine Hartman, office manager of the bureau.
Kreig Pinkham and Sherry Knudsen from the organization said just as much this summer in a conversation with National Life, which inspired the life insurance and financial services company to step in. “Knowing that hunger has been affecting more and more people in our community, we knew we couldn’t let this tradition disappear, especially this year,” explains Beth Rusnock, head of Community Relations at National Life.
Considering the scale of the event, and the potential increase in need this year, National Life knew they couldn’t do it alone. Because Sodexo runs the National Life cafeteria — along with large-scale dining programs at UVM, Norwich, St. Michael’s College, and Champlain College — they seemed an excellent partner. Happily, Sodexo agreed. “They immediately told us they wanted to help,” Rusnok notes, and didn’t flinch when we said we needed 700 meals.”
The connections the Washington County Youth Service Bureau/Boys & Girls Clubs had combined with those of National Life and Sodexo allowed the team to tap many local business for additional support, including the Vermont Foodbank, Just Basics, Hannaford, Community Harvest of Central Vermont, Chappelle’s Potatoes, Central Vermont Medical Center, Hunger Mountain Coop, Cabot, Norwich University, Manghi’s Bread, Vermont Creamery, Rain or Shine Tent and Events Company, and the Wayside Diner. “The way everyone has offered to pitch in has been humbling but not completely unexpected,” notes Rusnock. “Our community is consistently generous that way.”
The Washington County Youth Service Bureau may not be leading the effort, but they are continuing to stay involved by providing guidance, previous contacts, and offering to track reservations. “All three organizations are working closely together to manage the logistics of the meal since it will be pick-up or delivery only this year,” Hartman notes. “The collaboration has been easy and efficient.”
Sodexo is taking care of food production and meal preparation, which this year includes turkey, mashed potatoes, squash, cranberry sauce, coleslaw, rolls with butter, and apple cobbler for dessert. A vegetarian option will omit the turkey. Meals will be served cold in containers that can be reheated.
The meals will be prepared at Norwich by “a small army” of pre-approved volunteers who have completed VOSHA training and followed stringent COVID protocols, including temperature checks, N95 masks, and gloves. They will help assemble and distribute meals. So far about 35 have signed up, but National Life anticipates the need for 50 or more, when factoring in delivery drivers, set-up crew, and so on. However, depending on the final meal count determined on November 18, more may be required.
Precautions will also be taken at the pick-up spots outside Bethany Church and National Life’s main entrance. “We ask those who pick-up a meal to wear a mask, and we’ll have masks available for those who don’t have one, as well as hand sanitizer,” explains Rusnock. “We also ask that they remain six feet apart.” The only difference is that at National Life, people can essentially drive through without ever having to get out of the car, while Bethany Church will be walk-up only.
National Life’s efforts are focused primarily on the Montpelier area, but Barre residents will still receive some measure of indirect support. They will have Thanksgiving meals available through the Salvation Army, and the Sons of the American Legion will lead delivery efforts. “The meals that will be provided in Barre are separate from what we’re doing,” Rusnock explains, “but we’re working with one another to ensure meals are available for those who need one in each community.”
For Hartman and the Washington County Youth Service Bureau, the collaboration gives a lot to be thankful for this year. “It is likely that this event would not have been possible this year without National Life and Sodexo taking the lead,” she explains. “Working with National Life and Sodexo has been a great partnership, and we couldn’t be happier with the way things have come together.”
Montpelier residents who need a meal can reserve one by calling (802) 229-9151 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org by November 18. The meals will be available for pick-up at Bethany Church or the National Life campus between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Wednesday, November 25. Delivery will be offered on Wednesday, November 25 between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.