For the 18th successive year, Evanston Firefighters Association IAFF Local 742 donated bins with all the fixing for a Thanksgiving meal. The 12 bins went to Hillside Pantry. Photo from Evanston Firefighters Association IAFF Local 742

No horse. No sleigh. Epidemiologists have warned that with the pandemic raging, grandmother’s house must be off limits for Thanksgiving this year.

For too many in E-town, a bountiful meal and a festive gathering were not in the stars anyway. A number of local organizations are helping some of these people, among the most vulnerable in our midst, celebrate the holiday.

Jennifer Eason, owner of the Jamaican and American soul food restaurant Jennifer’s Edibles, 1623 Simpson St., will be cooking Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday for some of the folks she has been looking after for months. She watched the first COVID-19 stay-at-home order in mid-March rob many senior citizens of vital services – and come close to forcing her to close her eatery. 

Worried about the well-being of senior citizens, she vowed to help by cooking free dinners for five older adults. Almost immediately, Ms. Eason was answering the call for 210 seniors’ meals a day, seven days a week. The number has stabilized at around 70, and when the restaurant reopens on Dec. 1 after a brief hiatus, she will be scaling back to providing dinners five days a week. On Fridays, Ms. Eason also cooks for the shelter run by Connections for the Homeless. At its maximum, the homeless population needing meals topped 200. Connections has settled all but 70 of them in housing, reducing the number of dinners to 45 or so. Still enthusiastic, Ms. Eason admits, “I’m tired.”

Funding from the Evanston Community Foundation, along with generous donations from businesses and individuals, allowed her to re-hire the employees she had had to let go when the virus struck. She calls Evanston “a great little town” for the cooperative spirit she experienced. “People stepped up,” she says, including the 150 volunteers who helped with every food preparation task and as many as 17 drivers who delivered food all over Evanston.

Ms. Eason’s Wednesday’s dinner for older adults will feature roasted Cornish hens, served with cornbread stuffing and candied yams. “We have to take care of our seniors,” she says.

Just a block away, from its headquarters at 1723 Simpson St., Meals on Wheels Northeast Illinois (formerly Meals at Home) will be going all-out to provide clients a generous Thanksgiving meal. The traditional turkey dinner of mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie promises to cheer and comfort the mostly older folks who are MWNEI clients. 

Delivering a hot meal on the actual holiday is a complicated process. The chef and two line cooks must prepare the meals taking strict precautions – wearing masks, wiping down surfaces and using hand sanitizer. Eight volunteers, social-distanced and split into two shifts, will assist inside the building on Thursday. Practicing contactless delivery, 30 to 35 volunteers will distribute the dinners.

Coordinating an event this large would be difficult under normal circumstances. But preparing and transporting 162 meals on Thursday means contending with the demands and restraints imposed by COVID-19.

Executive director Debi Morganfield enumerates the changes wrought by the virus. Just before MWNEI moved into their new kitchen and headquarters, the virus arrived. For the safety of all participants, the organization pared their six-day-a-week schedule to a once-a-week delivery of seven frozen meals. They had returned to their usual routine before the latest virus surge, but they have again cut back to delivering just three times a week.

Meanwhile, as the virus took hold, the number of applicants for MWNEI services skyrocketed, and the percentage of low-income clients grew from 60% to 77%. Ms. Morganfield says she worries about the strain on the resources of this rather small nonprofit group.

Early this week, the RoundTable found Connections for the Homeless preparing not just for Thanksgiving but also managing wish lists for the upcoming winter holidays. When contacted, they said they were looking at 150 food baskets filled with turkeys and all the trimmings. Fifty more were expected to be finished by day’s end.

Most of the baskets were bound for the 120 or 130 families or individuals Connections has successfully housed, most of them in apartments, since admitting them when they were homeless last summer. When COVID-19 peaked during that time, the number of homeless seeking Connections services exploded to nearly 200. Connections sheltered many in local hotels, empty because of the coronavirus. With the rest settled, around 75 homeless remain in the Margarita Hotel.

Connections has three pillars: eviction prevention, shelter and housing. The overnight shelter and drop-in center provide the basics for people living on the street: showers, food, washing machines, etc. The organization seeks to move people into housing as soon as possible, assuring them of supportive services and long-term rental assistance.

Families and youth ages 18-24 who are unstably housed can move into transitional housing. At this time of year, the National Runaway Safeline and Cubs Charities typically host a Thanksgiving feast for up to 100 homeless youth. But this year, instead of the virus-risky gathering, volunteers are handing out to youth 350 boxed Thanksgiving meals and hygiene kits with masks, hand sanitizer and a note about shelters in Chicago and Evanston.

Evanston food pantries also witnessed the spike in the number of people in need in the pandemic.

The Evanston Vineyard Food Pantry, a ministry of Vineyard Christian Church of Evanston at 2495 Howard St., is closed Thanksgiving week. A few weeks ago, a spokesman says, Vineyard received and distributed a shipment of frozen turkeys from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which delivers food to 700 food pantries. The Vineyard pantry’s regular hours are 6-8 p.m. Wednesdays. In one frenetic month after the virus struck, the pantry experienced a 200% rise in people lined up in cars for food, says an online video. Though the surge did not last more than a month, volunteers recall their shock at seeing Jaguars and BMWs and Mercedes in line.

At the opposite end of town, the Hillside Church, 2727 Crawford Ave., has a food pantry that is keeping its regular hours, 4-6 p.m., on Wed., Nov. 25. The pantry has a database with 3,500 families who have been served at least once. “That makes 2,000 a month,” calculates a speaker on their video.

 “It’s been a long year for people,” says Llyoandra Cooper, coordinator of The Giving Storeroom Food Pantry and Valerie D. Summer Family Closet located on the lower level of the Family Focus building at 2010 Dewey Ave. The pantry packs an average of 20-25 bags of food a week and is open from 11a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays. This month they had so many donations Ms. Cooper posted an invitation on social media for people in need to claim one of the 100 bags of food containing “yams, stuffing, a little bit of everything,” for Thanksgiving dinner.

Among the donations were 12 bins with a turkey and all the fixings for a Thanksgiving meal. The bins were filled for the 18th successive year by Evanston Firefighters Association IAFF Local 742.

On the morning of Nov. 20, the VFW and American Legion joint food drive for vets came to a wildly successful conclusion. Veterans commented that the Evanston community had lent overwhelming support for the veterans. Food kept streaming in during the entire campaign right up to the end date which was last Friday.  

That afternoon, volunteers took more than 1,000 pounds of food up to The Midwest Veteran’s Closet in North Chicago, an organization that provides food, clothing, household goods and more to veterans in need. 

As they anticipate their abundant Thanksgiving meal this year, a lot of Evanstonians are doing more than just thinking about those who face food insecurity. Among these more fortunate are the employees, volunteers and donors who are helping others enjoy the holiday too.