By Todd Cohen
[Note: This article was written for Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro.]
GREENSBORO, N.C. — For most Americans, Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks, sit down to a special meal with their family, reflect on what life has given them, and maybe give something back.
But for each of the one in four households in the Greensboro and High Point region that live in a state of “food insecurity” — the region trails only New Orleans as the metropolitan area in the U.S. with the highest food hardship per capita — Thanksgiving is just one more day of struggling to survive, as well as a reminder that they lack what other households take for granted.
For the past 28 years, through an initiative known as Community Tables, a total of 85,000 people in need in the region have been able to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, while thousands of volunteers have had the opportunity to participate in the tradition of giving back.
Supported by roughly $20,000 that individuals contribute each year to the Thanksgiving/Holiday Fund at Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, volunteers for Community Tables prepare meals that other volunteers from local churches and nonprofits pick up and either serve to people and families in need or deliver to their homes.
“It’s something they don’t have every day,” says Mary Lacklen, a co-founder of Community Tables and director of restaurant operations for Libby Hill Seafood Restaurants. “It’s about giving thanks for what we do have.”
Feeding people in need
For the past four years, North Carolina has ranked among the 10 states with the highest share of people who find themselves short of food. The state also is among the 10 states with the highest share of children who don’t get food on a regular basis. And the metro region that includes Greensboro and High Point, along with Winston-Salem, ranks second-to-worst in the U.S. in the level of food insecurity.
“Sometimes dignity is taken away, with no job or income, and children in need,” Lacklen says. “There is such a high population of kids and so many families who are struggling to make ends meet. They may not be homeless, but they may have only one job in the household, and the other person has lost theirs, and the one job may be for a minimum wage. They should be able to celebrate Thanksgiving just like the rest of us.”
Ken Conrad, another co-founder of Community Tables and chairman of Libby Hill Seafood Restaurants, says the needs of hungry people in the region are greater than ever.
The collapse of the economy in 2008 led to massive unemployment, including the loss of jobs in the textile and tobacco industries that are “gone forever,” and the exodus overseas of jobs in the local furniture industry, says Conrad, who also serves as chairman of the National Restaurant Association.
Guilford and Rockingham counties have been particularly hard hit, as has Forsyth County, and unemployment rates in the region are among the highest in the state, he says.
A tradition of giving back
Inspired by a Christmas meal that the late Marc Freiberg, owner of Ham’s Restaurants, had provided for years to people in need, Community Tables was launched in 1986 as an annual community project by the now-defunct Guilford County Restaurant Association.
Initially, volunteers prepared about 200 Thanksgiving dinners at the Salvation Army, cooking whole turkeys in pit cookers in the organization’s parking lot in downtown Greensboro.
After three years, unable to feed the growing number of hungry people in the community who otherwise would not have had a Thanksgiving dinner, Community Tables moved production of its Thanksgiving meals to Potter’s House, the community kitchen operated by Greensboro Urban Ministry.
And last year, thanks to a generous offer from the City of Greensboro, Community Tables moved its operation to the kitchen at the Greensboro Coliseum.
Anna Freiberg, who is Marc Freiburg’s daughter and operates Bender’s Tavern, continues to serve about 1,000 Christmas dinners a year at the restaurant to people in need.
That effort, supported by Community Tables and by donations to the Thanksgiving/Holiday Fund that donors may earmark to support the Christmas meal, continues the tradition that the Freiberg family has spearheaded for decades in the Jewish community to serve Christmas dinner to Christians in need.
Volunteers and donors giving back
Community Tables truly is a community effort.
Through its Thanksgiving/Holiday Fund, Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro raises about $20,000 a year that Community Tables uses to buy food to serve about 3,000 meals a year.
Roughly 300 volunteers a year sign up on Facebook, at ThanksgivingHolidayFundGSO, to prepare Thanksgiving dinner, working either during the 11 a.m.-to-6 p.m. shift the day before Thanksgiving, or during the 5 a.m.-to-9:30 a.m. shift on Thanksgiving Day.
Separate courses for the meals are prepared at a handful of locations, including Victory Junction, a camp in Randleman for kids with serious illnesses, which cooks 1,200 pounds of boneless turkey breasts, and Painted Plate Catering in Greensboro, which prepares the gravy and stuffing.
Volunteers deliver those separate courses to the kitchen at Greensboro Coliseum, where other volunteers carve the turkeys; prepare mashed potatoes, green beans, and candied yams; package portions of those foods and cranberry sauce into boxes; and cut slices of pumpkin pies that have been purchased and put them into individual containers.
Then volunteers from churches and nonprofits partnering with Community Tables pick up the meals and either serve them at their own facilities or deliver them to people at their homes.
Meals on Wheels and Senior Resources, for example, deliver the Thanksgiving dinner to elderly shut-ins, while Triad Health Project delivers it to people with HIV/AIDS.
Delancey Street Foundation, a residential self-help organization for substance abusers, ex-convicts, homeless and others who have hit hard times, serves the meals to families at its facility.
Summerfield United Methodist Church provides the meals for people who pick them up at the church.
And other churches and nonprofits typically request Thanksgiving dinners from Community Tables.
Conrad himself drives his company’s refrigerated truck to pick up the cooked turkeys at Victory Junction and deliver them to the kitchen at Greensboro Coliseum.
“It gives me personal satisfaction,” he says. “If you feed one person who was not going to eat, then it’s all worth while.”
A gathering for family
Several years ago, Conrad and Lacklen recognized that families in need typically were not turning up at shelters and other facilities that were serving the Thanksgiving dinner prepared by volunteers for Community Tables.
“The original intent was to feed the homeless,” Conrad says. “There are a lot of needy families, including children, who would not go to a homeless shelter for Thanksgiving. It’s just not an atmosphere conducive to kids.”
So he and Lacklen looked for community partners that would serve meals to families and children, along with homeless individuals, at their own facilities.
Starting in 2012, Congregational United Church of Christ has partnered with Community Tables to serve about 300 meals at its fellowship hall.
Volunteers provide flowers and tablecloths for the tables, and serve as waiters. And families often dress up for the occasion.
“We’re trying to provide a family atmosphere,” Lacklen says. “One woman had tears in her eyes. She said she had finally found a place where she was treated with a level of dignity and respect, and she could be proud in front of her kids.”
Community Tables also has provided many other families with a tradition of giving back at the holidays.
“We have a lot of the same volunteers year after year,” Lacklen says. “It’s part of their holiday tradition, a way people can share every year. They give up their Thanksgiving mornings to do it.”
And some individuals and families who are the recipients of the meals from Community Tables return in future years as volunteers to prepare the meals for other people in need.
Conrad says Community Tables plans to grow and serve more people by partnering with other churches and organizations that want to serve Thanksgiving dinner to families and individuals at their facilities, particularly in East Greensboro, Southeast Greensboro and predominantly minority neighborhoods.
Providing dignity, building community
For many years, volunteers and partner agencies were responsible for raising the funds Community Tables needed to buy food for the Thanksgiving dinner it prepares. Some years, especially in tough economic times, raising money was a particular challenge, but donors in the community always came through.
In recent years, Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro has handled fundraising for Community Tables, allowing its volunteers and partner agencies to focus on preparing, serving and delivering the meals.
Donors may support the Thanksgiving dinner through a contribution to the Thanksgiving/Holiday Fund, and also may designate that some or all of their gift support the Christmas dinner.
A donation of $5 allows a hungry person in the community to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings.
Community Tables “makes our community stronger,” Lacklen says. “There are a lot of kids who don’t get meals. We’re trying to provide meals in a lot of different venues so we reach as many people as possible.”
Conrad says that in addition to providing a holiday dinner for people in need, Community Tables gives them a sense of promise.
“You always have to have hope,” he says. “Things like this just give people hope, that there is a brighter tomorrow.”