Bread for the City ends Thanksgiving Holiday Portionings giveaway early

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The district’s largest pantry closed its Thanksgiving turkey giveaway early for the first time in its 30-year history after overwhelming demand heightened tensions and security concerns.

Bread for the City, a nonprofit that helps low-income DC residents get groceries, clothing, medical supplies, and legal and social services, had scheduled its Holiday Helpings program to run Nov. 1 through Wednesday. Instead, the giveaway ended last week after 16,000 households gave out holiday meals valued at $1.6 million.

Organizers said they were unprepared for demand in their first in-person Thanksgiving distribution since before the pandemic — one that had increased the content of their holiday offerings compared to previous years.

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In 2019, about 10,000 families received a turkey and other groceries. In 2020 and 2021, Bread for the City electronically distributed $50 and $75 gift cards, respectively, to be used at brick-and-mortar or online stores. This year, customers received a “vacation package” that included turkey, other groceries, and a $50 debit card.

The organization had expected about 12,000 homes this year, but improved supply combined with increasing economic hardship resulted in long lines outside centers, with customers standing for three to four hours in unseasonably cold weather, said Ashley Domm, Bread for the City Head of Advancement and Chief Development Officer. Domm said 1,200 to 1,500 people poured into the organization’s two centers in northwest and southeast Washington daily. Many were seniors and people with disabilities.

“The way it was going, we just couldn’t guarantee the safety of our employees and the people on the lines because our facility and staff weren’t designed to handle that many people,” Domm said.

So the organization broke off on Thursday. Among the factors contributing to this decision was an “intensity surge over the last few days, heated words being exchanged in line and directed at our staff,” said George Jones, managing director of Bread for the City. “Everyone grinned and took it, and we did that for as long as we could,” he said. There was also a theft of 10 $50 gift cards, Domm said.

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Jones sympathized with those in line.

“Picture [the Transportation Security Administration] and everyone’s trying to get a turkey from you, but the TSA line is cold in November,” he said. “You had to see it to understand how intense and challenging it was, and if you had been there the question might have been, ‘Why didn’t you stop sooner?’ ”

Customers responded to the news on Facebook and Twitter in English and Spanish. Many praised the program, and some said they were relieved they got their turkeys before the cutoff. Several expressed outrage at a theft at a place that helps people in need.

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After increasing supplies as demand increased, the organization was left with 3,000 undistributed turkeys, which Jones said would likely be distributed to other giveaway-holding organizations. “At the end of the day,” he said, “it may be that we were able to serve 19,000 to 20,000 homes despite the early termination.”

Jones said Bread for the City will study this year’s giveaway provide information on how to proceed in the future, including the search for a larger venue.

Meanwhile, other turkey drives in the area continued as planned. The Washington Nationals co-sponsored an event Monday at Nationals Park that gave away turkeys and bags of groceries. The giveaway continues Wednesday in District Heights, MD.

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