The spike of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations this fall amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is resulting in changes to the Bismarck-Mandan holiday tradition of Thanksgiving Day community meals.
This year, two groups that have held separate meals in the past are joining forces to offer hot turkey with the regular fixings, and of course, fellowship.
For the 16th year, The Banquet is providing a Thanksgiving Day meal, from 5:30-7 p.m. Thursday at Trinity Lutheran Church, 502 N. Fourth St. in downtown Bismarck. The nonprofit organization is collaborating with Ministry on the Margins, another local charity.
Meanwhile, AID Inc. and Heavens Helpers Soup Cafe, which have held Thanksgiving meals in the past, will not hold them this year, but for different reasons.
The Banquet is a nondenominational feeding ministry offering free meals to people and families in need in the Bismarck-Mandan area four days a week. Ministry on the Margins is a volunteer ecumenical ministry supporting people who may fall through the cracks while transitioning from prison.
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Meal organizers are planning a feast for about 350 people, according to Banquet Executive Director Karla Eisenbiesz.
“Holidays tend to be really lonely times for people that don’t have families,” she said. “It’s another opportunity for them to come and enjoy a turkey dinner.”
Ministry on the Margins canceled its Thanksgiving Day community meal last year due to the pandemic, and Executive Director Sister Kathleen Atkinson said joining The Banquet this year was a natural move.
“For me it shows the positivity about collaboration,” she said. “The important thing is that people have a place to gather and they have a meal that’s an option. (The Banquet) has been open and running meals again, and so they know what to do and it’s been working safely."
Others helping support the meal are Great Plains Food Bank and the Dakota Center for Independent Living.
For those not wanting to sit in the dining hall, there will be to-go boxes handed out at the church entrance.
On The Banquet’s menu this year will be turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, fruit cocktail, pumpkin pie, dinner rolls, mashed potatoes and gravy, and a vegetable.
“We don’t turn anybody away,” Eisenbiesz said. “We all want to have that connection with people, and it would just break my heart if I would think somebody that’s 80 years old and his spouse died and he doesn’t know how to cook a turkey didn’t have that available to him; to come to The Banquet for a meal. That’s why we do it.”
The 20 volunteers will be wearing masks, but masks will not be required for diners.
The uncertain conditions of the pandemic have prompted AID Inc. in Mandan to again cancel its Thanksgiving Day community meal. The nonprofit called off last year's meal when the kitchen and dining hall at First Lutheran Church were closed to large gatherings.
There are too many variables again this year to commit to the charity’s traditional holiday meal, according to Executive Director Patty Regan. The planning of the meal, the cost of groceries, supply chain issues, and an available kitchen and dining hall were a few of the logistical concerns.
“It was not an easy decision to make, but at the time that the planning needed to happen and the numbers were continuing to raise for COVID-19, we had to make the decision to not hold a dinner this year,” she said. “I just in good conscience couldn’t put 300 people in a church setting and all of those volunteers as well and just expect everything to turn out OK."
The organization’s board of directors might consider an Easter Sunday community meal next spring if virus cases decline.
“I hope that everybody in the community understands that these are not easy decisions to make,” Regan said. “We don’t want to deprive people of a wonderful gathering. It’s the fellowship and a warm, welcoming environment. It looks pretty and it smells great; we don’t want to have to cancel that.”
Heavens Helpers Soup Café in Bismarck opened its doors last Thanksgiving, but it will be closed for the holiday this year.
“We are giving our volunteers a break,” Executive Director Mark Meier said. “Our M.O. is to be closed on that day and last year was that exception.”
The facility will be open offering holiday meals on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Meier said the Soup Café is always in need of volunteers to serve daily meals, especially after the holidays.