After many years of providing local food pantries with frozen turkeys for Thanksgiving baskets handed out to needy families, the Good Shepherd Food-Bank has decided it can no longer provide the main course, opting to offer gift cards and deep discounts on the traditional trimmings instead.
Clara McConnell, communications manager for Good Shepherd, said in the past the food bank would sell about 10,000 turkeys at cut-rate prices to food pantries throughout Maine each November. That practice is now being discontinued due to potential food contamination issues and the logistical difficulty involved in distributing the birds.
While they’re disappointed that Good Shepherd will no longer be providing turkeys, those who lead food pantries in Biddeford, Saco and Old Orchard Beach said they will adjust and still hope to provide turkeys to as many families as possible.
The Saco Food Pantry is holding a special donation event on Sunday, Nov. 11, and is also receiving much-needed help from the Prime Auto Group and Thornton Academy in providing nearly 400 turkeys for local families this Thanksgiving, according to Bob Nichols, the pantry manager.
Nichols said the Saco Food Pantry has also put out an appeal to local churches asking for turkeys because the pantry doesn’t have enough money to pay full retail price for the number of turkeys it usually gives out.
He said to ensure that people have a Thanksgiving meal, the pantry will offer roast chickens to families of one to three and reserve the turkeys for families of four or more.
Nichols said Good Shepherd informed local pantries they could not count on the food bank for turkeys this year in a timely manner, but even with the food bank’s assistance, he said, getting enough birds to meet the demand was already difficult.
That’s why Nichols was so pleased when Ira Rosenberg, owner of the Prime Auto Group, called him recently and asked what he could do to help the Saco Food Pantry and the people it serves. Nichols said Rosenberg promised to deliver 200 turkeys to the pantry this past week.
In addition, he said, students at Thornton Academy originally raised enough money to buy 50 turkeys, but when the students heard about the pantry’s quandary, they agreed to raise more money and are trying to get enough to purchase a total of 100 turkeys.
That would still leave the Saco pantry between 50 and 80 turkeys short, which is why it’s holding special hours on Nov. 11, hoping to get those last needed birds from generous locals.
At the Stone Soup Food Pantry in Biddeford, pantry manager Kathy Duke said she’d have to limit the number of turkeys given out this year to 100 and even getting that many may prove difficult.
“I’m hoping we can get some special donations to cover the cost of the turkeys,” she said. “I’m just hoping we can make this happen because what is Thanksgiving without a bird?”
Duke said the pantry was surprised last year when someone donated all the turkeys needed to feed hungry families over the holiday, but she knows with a still-struggling economy she can’t necessarily count on that same generous donor.
Normally, pantries in Maine were able to purchase the turkeys they needed from Good Shepherd for 16 cents a pound, well below the market price of 69 cents, which Duke called “astronomical.”
“Things are just really hard,” she said. “I don’t think people truly realize how bad it is out there. We’ve never served the number of people we have now. We’re just hoping for the best.”
Duke said in addition to doing what it can to provide 100 turkeys and all the fixings, Stone Soup is also providing its clients with a list of local organizations providing free meals on Thanksgiving Day.
At the Old Orchard Beach United Methodist Church, members are preparing to hold the eighth annual Thanksgiving Day meal, which is open for free, to residents from Old Orchard Beach, Biddeford and Saco. The church will also deliver meals to those who can’t make it on Nov. 22.
The Rev. Michael Gray said the church would normally get its turkeys from the Good Shepherd Food-Bank, but this year it will have to buy the birds it needs on the open market. He said those prices are steeper than what the church paid to Good Shepherd, but the food bank is also not able to provide as many staples as it once did at deep discounts.
In addition to its Thanksgiving Day meal, the Methodist church in Old Orchard Beach also operates a food pantry and clothes closet. Gray said in years past the pantry would give out turkeys and the fixings to needy families who wanted to cook at home, but that’s not going to happen this year.
“We’ll be cooking enough turkey to feed about 300 hot meals and these meals will be offered as a lunch at the church,” he said. “All of these turkeys will either be donated or purchased on the open market.”
Gray said the church recently received $500 to help defray the cost of the Thanksgiving Day meal and he hopes more donations will continue to come in.
“The Thanksgiving Day dinner recently received a very nice donation, so we are confident that we will be able to fill the need as long as the donations continue to come in at the current rate,” he said.
However, Gray also said that the main concern of social service agencies and churches, particularly at this time of year, is not with providing holiday meals and gifts, but with the everyday, ongoing needs, such as heating assistance, rental assistance and food insecurity.
“We all expect those programs to run out of money relatively soon this winter,” he said. “So, if people want to know what to do to help, I would suggest getting educated on the very real issues around poverty.”
McConnell, at Good Shepherd, said both the cost of shipping frozen turkeys and then many local food pantries not having enough freezer capacity to ensure the birds stayed frozen have been long-running issues.
She said in order to have enough frozen turkeys to meet the demand from pantries all across Maine, Good Shepherd was forced to lock in its orders in the early part of the summer, “when the price of turkeys is not that great.”
Although it’s discontinuing the practice of providing turkeys this fall, Good Shepherd isn’t leaving its client pantries high and dry.
It’s already sent out $50,000 worth of gift cards from Hannaford Bros. and $20,000 from Shaw’s.
As a result of the changes, McConnell said, the low-cost food distributor has gotten a range of reactions from its pantry members.
“Some food pantries that we’ve talked to immediately said, ‘We completely understand, we can get turkeys donated,’” she said. “But others have been more upset, so we are trying to reassure everyone that we’re trying to do what’s best with our limited resources and what works well for the majority of pantries. You can’t always please everyone, but we’re trying something new this year and we hope it works out well.”
Staff writer Kate Irish Collins contributed to this report.