TRAVERSE CITY — Kim Mende, who volunteers for and helps organize Trinity Lutheran Church’s community meals, said many who come to the community meals revel in the chance to connect with others and celebrate.

“I think they just look so forward to getting together on the holiday and having someone do something special for them and have a party with their friends,” Mende said. “So I think it really means a lot to the people that do come.”

Community meals are a staple service of some local churches and organizations. The COVID-19 pandemic barred many of those in-person gatherings from happening this year and last, but many continue to volunteer their time and pull together meals to hand out to people looking to celebrate Thanksgiving with a hot meal.

Trinity Lutheran usually serves a sit-down community meal every Sunday and on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, but, because of COVID, these events changed the past two years. Meals are now given for people to take to-go.

On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, Trinity Lutheran handed out hot Thanksgiving meals for people to take home. On Wednesday, volunteers handed out 35 turkeys donated from Skilled Manufacturing, a Traverse City-based machinery manufacturer, to families in the area, as well as pies and produce people can use to cook their own Thanksgiving meals.

The Salvation Army also modified its holiday tradition of hosting a community meal on Thanksgiving, said Salvation Army Lieutenant Matthew Winters. Volunteers with the Salvation Army served hot Thanksgiving meals to-go on Wednesday starting at 11 a.m. out of two trucks in the parking lot at their location on Barlow Street.

Winters said last year, they served around 280 people for Thanksgiving, but they are expecting more people this year.

“Community meals in general bring together different demographics,” Winters said. “And it’s at those tables, that conversation happens and relationships are built, people are seen as humans.”

Winters said the meals that Salvation Army volunteers included 21 turkeys that were cooked by the U. S. Coast Guard, Trattoria Stella and Outback Steakhouse. The rest was cooked in-house by volunteers at the Salvation Army.

Bill Marsh Buick GMC car dealership donated money to help the Salvation Army pay for the food, Winters said.

There are some picnic tables around the Salvation Army building that people were able to sit at to eat, Winters said, but volunteers will not facilitate a community dinner. The community meal was offered to everyone; people interested did not need to sign up beforehand.

The Salvation Army serves community meals on Monday and Wednesday, but those are outside as well, Winters said. He said he is looking forward to when the community meals can be in-person, indoors and sat at a table again.

“I think when you do it to-go, then you miss out on some of the other benefits of sitting around socializing,” Winters said. “There’s some seniors that this was their social event for the week and they felt at home, and so having that kind of stripped away for a season has been hard.”

While some community meal traditions are continuing this year in unconventional ways, other community meal traditions started this year.

At Northwestern Michigan College, business students in the experiential learning professional communications class organized two food pick-ups for Thanksgiving meals on Monday.

The students distributed 134 boxes, each meant to feed about six people to NMC students and local families, said Mahli Braak, marketing team leader for the class. Each box includes uncooked turkeys and produce with recipe sheets for the students or families to cook for themselves.

The first pick up was from 2-4 p.m. at the Physical Education building, where they distributed over 75 meals to NMC students. The second pick-up took place from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Bill Marsh car dealership where the students distributed 50 meals to local families identified by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwestern Michigan.

“Just, like, seeing [the families] and helping them out made a huge impact already on me,” Braak said.

The students wrote to local organizations asking for food items and monetary donations to fill the boxes. They also raised money and gathered food items from students.

Braak is a first-year student at NMC. She said she is “passionate” about volunteering, so when she heard about this project she knew she wanted a leadership role.

“It’s taught me more than I think any college class could,” Braak said.

Mende said that not everyone who comes to the Trinity Lutheran community meal is experiencing homelessness or unable to cook Thanksgiving themselves; many of them are just interested in finding company during the holidays. Because of COVID, the community gathering aspect of Trinity Lutheran’s tradition is partially lost, but Mende said she is hopeful that the tradition can restart in the future.

“The whole reason that our community meal program was set up was so no one would have to be alone on the holidays and, because we’re kind of isolated now, people are alone on holidays,” Mende said. “We try to do the best we can to accommodate them, but hopefully we’ll be back next year and then no one has to be alone on the holidays.”

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