Ames' Food at First prepares to serve another free Thanksgiving meal in the pandemic era
Four hundred pounds of turkey, 350 pounds of potatoes, 55 pounds of cranberries, 30 large cans of green beans and 25 pans of stuffing will go into feeding up to 800 people at Food at First on Thanksgiving.
The Ames-based nonprofit, located at First Christian Church on 611 Clark Ave., served around 650 people last Thanksgiving. Patty Yoder, Food at First's executive director, is expecting even more guests to pick up a free meal this year.
"I've already had people dicing up celery for stuffing, and we have it all ready in the freezer," Yoder said last week. "There's a lot of prep work."
Food at First will be serving a carry-out Thanksgiving dinner from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday at the First Christian Church. Face masks are required for both volunteers and guests.
This year marks the second Thanksgiving meal Food at First has served during the pandemic. Yoder said COVID-19 drastically altered the organization's free meal program and perishable food distribution, with volunteers continuing to take public health precautions.
The organization's free meals, which around 120 people pick up every day, are still served curbside. The Food at First Free Market, open three times a week, just recently moved back into the church. Guests are required to wear masks and are asked to stay six feet apart in line.
Approximately 200 volunteers are pitching in in the days leading up to Thursday so that Food at First can serve more than six times the number of people they usually cook for on a typical day. In addition to prepping Thanksgiving dinner mainstays like mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce, Food at First will be baking homemade pies and 1,600 pumpkin bars — double last year's recipe, Yoder said, so the squares can be made into 800 sandwiches to prevent the cream cheese frosting from sticking to to-go boxes.
Food at First spends more than $400 a week on disposable packaging, Yoder said, a cost that has been on the rise since supply chain issues have caused shortages of takeout containers.
"With all the shipping issues right now, sometimes you go to a store to buy something and they don't have it," Yoder said. "So we've been scrambling a lot online to find everything."
While the number of people visiting the food pantry has decreased since the start of the pandemic, the number of people picking up a free meal each day has steadily risen, Yoder said.
"We see new faces all the time," Yoder said. "I'm thinking about maybe asking the cooks to prepare a few more meals every day because we've started to run out a few days."
While Food at First prepares to feed hundreds on Thanksgiving, the organization is also distributing food donations to people who will be cooking at home for the holiday. Food donations can be dropped off at the west entrance of Food at First from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays.
Items on the organization's grocery wish list include canned chicken, cream soups, olive oil, and assorted fruits and vegetables.
While Yoder said the past year and a half has been a challenge, "We just keep going."
"Local people have been really, really generous to us to help with those extra costs," Yoder said. "We're very thankful for this awesome community."