It’s still a warm meal: Amid pandemic Thanksgiving, Manna Community Kitchen serves at a safe distance

  • Justin Johns load cars with meals for delivery of the Manna Thanksgiving Day dinner Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Front left, Lauren Abend and Nora Finnerty, with Manna Community Kitchen, hand out Thanksgiving Day dinner and coffee to James Senuta on Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Front right, Dave Williams packs meals to go during the Manna Thanksgiving Day dinner Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. The room where the volunteers were putting meals to go is usually filled with tables and people waiting patiently to be served a warm dinner. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • James Senuta waits in line in front of Edwards Church in Northampton to get a Thanksgiving dinner Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dave Williams packs meals to go for the Manna Thanksgiving Day dinner Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. The room where the volunteers were putting meals to go is usually filled with tables and people waiting patiently to be served a warm dinner. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nathaniel Hargis waits in line in front of Edwards Church in Northampton to get a Thanksgiving dinner Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • James Senuta sits under the roof of the side entrance to the Academy of Music in Northampton and eats the Thanksgiving dinner he just received from Manna Community Kitchen on Thursday. “It’s really good,” he said. “I just wish it was a little hotter.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Helena Alves packs meals to go during the Manna Thanksgiving Day dinner Thursday in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/26/2020 4:05:27 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The Edwards Church basement still smelled like Thanksgiving.

The scent of roasted butternut squash wafted as volunteers pushed carts of trays from the cramped kitchen to the banquet room where Manna Community Kitchen hosts its holiday meals. Normally on Thanksgiving Day, that room is filled with elaborately set tables crammed close together. Volunteer waiters serve guests. There’s a dessert wall.

Not in 2020.

The organization canceled its traditional meal due to the COVID-19 pandemic and offered delivery service and pickup at the church’s front door on Main Street. Volunteers loaded to-go containers with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, squash, green beans, salad, rolls and sweets. The meals then went into plastic bags, onto carts and up the elevator. From there, they either went to the back of the church for delivery or the front for pickup.

James Senuta was first in line for a meal at around 11:30 a.m. in a light rain. Pickup was scheduled to start at noon, while deliveries went out at 10 a.m. Manna’s Kind Café provided hot coffee, cider or cocoa to guests waiting in line.

Senuta usually has his Thanksgiving meal at Manna. Stuffing is his favorite side.

“I’d much rather be inside, but because of COVID, we’re stuck outside,” he said. “I’m grateful and thankful they’re still having it.”

After receiving his meal, Senuta walked down New South Street and ate under the roof of the Academy of Music’s side entrance, where he had slept the night before.

Nathaniel Hargis was receiving his first Thanksgiving meal from Manna.

“New to the homeless game,” he said.

He picked up two packages: one for himself and another for his friend Smiles, who lives in front of City Hall.

“If you’re homeless in Northampton, you’ll get by. Northampton is a beautiful place to be homeless,” Hargis said. “In Northampton, you can have everything surplus besides shelter.”

The pickup line cleared at around 12:30 p.m. More people came after, but they walked right up to the white plastic folding table and received their food. That is, until the initial batch of turkey ran out just before 1 p.m.

Cooks began roasting 800 pounds of turkey at 4 a.m. in Smith College’s Chase House kitchen. The food was then transferred to Edwards Church’s much smaller kitchen to finish the preparation. Lee Anderson, Manna’s full-time chef, helped prepare the meals, as he has for the past five years.

“The amount of gratitude that comes back from the guests is ridiculous,” he said.

Because of the pandemic, volunteers’ interaction with guests was limited this year. Manna encouraged its guests to use their home delivery service, which sent out 580 meals. That’s more than double last year’s 280.

“We wanted them to stay home, stay safe, let us bring the food to them,” Anderson said.

The increase in scale combined with COVID-19 prevention measures required a re-engineering of the staging process. Cars were lined up and down State Street, blocking access and limiting how much food could go out at a time. Right around when delivery was set to begin, three men, Terrance Gibbons, Ian Howard and Justin Johns, walked up and asked if they could help. They weren’t scheduled to volunteer, but Manna put them to use.

“They saved Thanksgiving,” said Lauren Abend, who was handing out meals at the front door.

Originally, the three men were packaging salad, but there were enough volunteers in the kitchen. They made their way out back and began directing traffic and loading cars. They devised a more efficient system to move the cars through the staging area and get meals out faster.

“They had somewhat of a system, but we saw where we could help out and make it a little easier for everybody,” Johns said. “It worked perfect.”

“We knew with the corona and everything, that was rough on a lot of families, and that compelled us to help a lot of people that would normally be able to get dinners,” Johns said. “It really made my day. It was a great experience to see how the community came forth. It was something I would love to do again.”

Colleen Goodhue was one of the delivery drivers whose experience they expedited. She and her partner moved to Northampton from New Hampshire at the beginning of the month, but she wanted to find a way to be involved serving her new community. All of the people she delivered to live in the same building, so it was an easy trip.

“They were all really grateful,” she said. “It’s nice moving here and seeing this community really cares and wants to get involved, and how many people were lined up ready to deliver meals made me feel like this is a really good place to live.”

All told, Manna served 917 meals Thursday. Kim Carlino supervised much of the packaging operations in the basement. She’s on the planning committee for holiday meals at Manna and oversaw the shift from the traditional sit-down affair to takeout.

“It’s hard this year because the in-person meal is such a beautiful community event,” she said. “It’s a place for people to come and not feel alone.”

There was an influx of people wanting to volunteer, Carlino said. More people are aware of the need for food security because of the economic strife the pandemic has wrought, which gave Manna more visibility. That led to donations and a surge in calls from people asking what Manna needed or what they could do to help.

“For me, it feels like there’s a lot of things you feel powerless about right now,” Carlino said. “This is one tangible thing you can do to feel like you’re contributing in some way.”




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