After preparing 45 turkeys and a full Thanksgiving dinner for about 400 people, a group of volunteer medical students behind Project Feast must also prepack the meals, remember their masks and tape the floors to promote social distancing.
It’s a tall order to orchestrate in any given year, but one that’s getting even bigger amid the coronavirus pandemic. Despite having to think about the logistics of keeping everyone safe while dining out, the sophomore medical students are excited that the event is happening — they couldn’t bear the idea of Project Feast being canceled again.
For more than 30 years, University of Maryland Medical School students have planned, recruited, and recruited volunteers to host a free Thanksgiving dinner for those in need. They also offered some health services, such as blood pressure checks. But last year the event was canceled for fear of spreading the virus.
“I think we’ve all experienced a little bit of a different Thanksgiving in 2020. This year we can have those traditions somehow,” said Kate Kiernan, the chair of the donations group. “It may not be the same Project Feast as before, but it still brings back that same festive spirit that we’re trying to get back after going through a really rough time with the pandemic.”
Now that more than 75% of Maryland’s eligible population has been at least partially vaccinated, the ability to collect and give back to those in need this Thanksgiving has become a little more achievable, even as the number of cases rises in the state and The United States. It’s a stark contrast to this time last year, when vaccines were not available and people were encouraged to stay home completely to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
While the risk hasn’t gone away completely, many organizations are resuming volunteering – with adjustments to maximize safety. They say they would like to give back, especially given the toll COVID-19 has taken on many people’s financial and emotional well-being.
Not only did the pandemic force people to stay at home, it exposed inequalities across Maryland. And as businesses closed and job losses soared, the need for aid increased.
Andy Shallal, owner of the busboys and poets, said he felt offering a free Thanksgiving meal to those in need at the establishment’s newest location in Baltimore’s Charles Village became even more important after the isolation of the pandemic.
“I think I should have stayed at home. It really showed people how important community gatherings are,” Shallal said. “Zoom was great, but of course nothing compares to looking people straight in the eye.”
On Thanksgiving Day, the restaurant at 3224 St. Paul St. will serve all traditional dishes from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Shallal said he thinks it will be a unique opportunity for those who can’t normally eat in a restaurant to become able to fall in love with and feel special. There will also be an open mic for poetry and performances, along with a winter clothing and blanket giveaway.
dr. Leana Wen, the former Baltimore health commissioner, said there’s a greater risk for personal activities like volunteering than getting together with friends and family, because people probably won’t know everyone’s vaccination status. She encouraged organizers to keep events out, where the risk of the coronavirus spreading is less. If anything is indoors, volunteers should wear a high-quality mask such as an N95 and avoid taking it off, she said.
Those who have been vaccinated are probably safer, but Wen, now a visiting professor at George Washington University, warned it may still not be fully protective.
“It’s all about risk management,” she says.
Addressing how to serve people safely in the COVID era hasn’t been much of a challenge for Busboys and Poets, Shallal said, as the restaurant has been navigating ever-changing protocols since the start of the pandemic. Busboys and poets will abide by Baltimore City’s mandates, which require anyone who does not eat or drink indoors wear a mask.
The urge to host an event and reach out to the larger community came largely from the staff, who wanted to make sure people understood the restaurant’s mission to be an inclusive meeting space, Shallal said.
“We want to be a space where people can break bread together and where everyone from all different parts of the city can come together and just connect,” said the restaurant owner.
While many people are opting for a more traditional Thanksgiving this year, some are still waiting for in-person events. For example, Goodwill of the Chesapeake decided to cancel its annual luncheon for the second year in a row. The organization has held it every year since 1955 in downtown Baltimore.
Rather than host a Thanksgiving meal or distribute turkeys, the United Way of Central Maryland opted for a fundraiser in hopes of distributing the resources beyond the holiday season.
Beth Littrell, director of the United Way for Community Engagement and Volunteering, said the organization has seen a large influx of people faced with the choice of either paying their electric bills or putting food on the table.
The organization has seen a flood of donations since the start of the pandemic, and those donations typically grow astronomically during the holiday season. It’s welcome, Littrell said, but she wishes the aid would be more consistent throughout the year.
“We appreciate the help, but we need people to understand that this is an ongoing need after Thanksgiving,” she said. “The pandemic may start to subside, but it doesn’t have to. So many people are still unemployed and struggling to make ends meet.”
While Kiernan, 28, and the four other Project Feast organizers aren’t used to volunteering on Thanksgiving, the medical students look forward to interacting and connecting with the community they hope to serve when they become doctors.
After taking an exam on Wednesday, the group plans to attend Booker T. Washington Middle School in West Baltimore to cook with the school’s chef and tape the floors to promote social distancing. , among other last-minute tasks.
The group expects to serve some 400 meals in the high school between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Thanksgiving Day.
Rachel Steger, the volunteer’s chairperson, said her help planning the event reminded her how grateful she is for what she has and the community she lives in.
“Even after this difficult time, we’re just excited that things are moving in a positive direction,” said the 23-year-old medical student. “Everyone is still desperate for [things to return] to what they are used to. And this is a starting point.”