Come ye thankful, for free Thanksgiving turkeys

I wrote this for RARA, to appear in Lexington’s weekly News-Gazette on Nov. 18. It went up on the paper’s website Nov. 13.

No family table in our community need be without a turkey and trimmings this Thanksgiving.

Lindsey Pérez of RARA, with one of 1000 frozen turkeys to be given away.

The Rockbridge Area Relief Association (RARA) has joined with the three public school systems and other food distribution partners to give away up to 1,000 frozen turkeys – about 15 tons of turkey – along with potatoes, green beans and fruit.

The free drive-thru distribution starts today at Fairfield Elementary School from 3:30 to 5 p.m. The giveaway continues at other school sites Thursday in Natural Bridge and Friday in the county, Buena Vista and Lexington.

On Saturday, Nov. 21, “Turkey Giveaway 2020” concludes with drive-thru pickups at RARA, 350 Spotswood Drive, Lexington, from 1-3 p.m.

All families needing help are welcome.

“Need” is taken on trust and doesn’t mean you have to be going hungry, said Jen Handy, executive director of RARA. “You’re not going to be taking the turkey from somebody else. We know it’s been a hard year.”

The idea of using school freezers around the county occurred to Handy in an inspiration that seemed crazy, at first. At the end of September, she was in a friend’s backyard watching their children play. Her friend said she had always wanted to give away Thanksgiving turkeys at her family restaurant, which prompted Handy to wish RARA could do that on a grand scale.

“My husband says I’m not afraid of a bad idea,” at least one that seems so at first. The problem was that RARA’s freezer had too little room, and would have other items in it. She considered church kitchens, then realized that public schools would be perfect. Their freezers would be under-utilized and they would be the distribution sites, as they have been for needy families throughout the pandemic.

All three school systems said yes, and began “fast and furious” planning, said Matt Crossman, director of school services for Rockbridge County.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity for our families, our schools and RARA,” Crossman said. “It’s great that people can come together when things aren’t great. We need a little bit of sunshine.”

Another partner is Campus Kitchen of Washington and Lee, a student-run program that provides low-income families with balanced meals using nutritious food that would otherwise go to waste. RARA has partnered with Campus Kitchen for years, currently serving six sites around the county with a Mobile Food Pantry.

RARA, which is part of the “Rockbridge Feeds” coalition of food-distribution organizations, recently received the 2020 Humanitarian of the Year award in the area Chamber of Commerce’s People’s Choice Award. It will be celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2022.

The frozen turkeys are being purchased through existing contracts or special orders from Sysco, Food Lion and Kroger, said Lindsey Pérez, program manager for RARA. The funding comes from a federal CARES Act grant through the Community Foundation for Rockbridge, Bath and Alleghany, Pérez said.

Families will receive a whole turkey or frozen three-pound turkey breast, depending on family size. Families that have already received their Thanksgiving meal through the Mobile Food Pantry are asked not to get a second during this week’s drive-thru events.

You do not need to pre-register. RARA is asking that you stay in your car while volunteers collect basic household information. Cars in line before 3 p.m. will be served as long as supplies last.

The meals come with instructions for safe thawing and cooking, supplied by Rockbridge County’s Cooperative Extension service. Covid-19 safety precautions will also be observed in the distribution.

Indoor Thanksgiving gatherings, nationwide, are worrying public health officials. If the distribution of free turkeys in the Rockbridge area encourages families to stay home and not join larger gatherings out of the area, that could help. “Gatherings with attendees who are traveling from different places pose a higher risk than gatherings with attendees who live in the same area,” according to the Virginia Department of Health.

Meanwhile, The Community Table, which has been distributing free take-out meals every other Monday since June, will have a Thanksgiving-style dinner to hand out next Monday, from Good Karma restaurant. The drive-thru, around the RARA building in Lexington, will begin at 6 p.m. and continue until all 150 turkey-and-sweet-potato meals have been given out.

As difficult as 2020 has been, with its election-year divisions and pandemic sheltering, Pérez said there’s a lot to be thankful for in the Rockbridge area. “This is a great community that we live in. People come together and support each other and help out any way they can.”

The Turkey Giveaway drive-thru will be at:

  • Fairfield Elementary School (for Rockbridge County School District families), Wednesday, Nov. 18, 3:30-5 p.m.
  • Natural Bridge Elementary School (Rockbridge County School District families), Thursday, Nov. 19, 3:30-5 p.m.
  • Parry McCleur Middle School (Buena Vista School District families), Friday, Nov. 20, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Lylburn Downing Middle School (Lexington School District families), – Friday, Nov. 20, 11:45 a.m.-1 p.m.
  • Rockbridge County High School (Rockbridge County School District families)- Friday, Nov. 20, 3:30-5 p.m.
  • RARA, 350 Spotswood Drive, Lexington, Saturday, Nov. 21, 1-3 p.m.

About Doug Cumming

journalism professor at W&L
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