Volunteers are converging on the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, overcoming supply chain challenges to serve tens of thousands of people who find themselves in need of a meal on Thanksgiving.
Organizers expect to serve between 25,000 and 30,000 families during Thursday's 43rd annual "Super Feast," they told CNN. About 635,000 pounds of food is being cooked to be served as a hot meal. About 3,200 turkeys have been cooked for the feast, and another 15,000 are being distributed at a separate drive-up location outside the convention center.
It's been a hard year for many here in this part of Texas, Stephanie Lewis, regional director of Super Feast organizer City Wide Club of America, told CNN. The Covid-19 pandemic is perhaps the chief culprit, having claimed countless lives and livelihoods, Lewis said. But the devastating arctic freeze that hit Texas earlier this year, along with soaring gas and food prices, has left families with impossible choices.
"Some people have to make a decision whether to buy gas or buy food, or buy gas or pay the rent or utilities," Lewis said. "They're having to do a lot of work to make ends meet."
These same challenges -- particularly supply chain issues and rising food prices -- have made Lewis' job as the event organizer more difficult than in years past.
"There are hundreds of commodities that are sitting in storage, waiting to be shipped," Lewis said. In prior years, Lewis explained, she simply purchased in bulk. But to overcome this year's challenges, Lewis started planning the event earlier and purchased smaller quantities of goods from a variety of vendors.
The hardest items to get this year were the frozen turkeys and paper goods, organizers said.
"If we as an organization are suffering like that, the impact on the families is probably even greater," Lewis said.
Kimberly Stubblefield told CNN enjoying a Thanksgiving meal at the Super Feast is a family tradition, and on Thursday her 11-year-old granddaughter woke up and asked when they were heading to the convention center.
Food banks have been a crucial source of food during a tough financial year, she said, describing having to choose between paying one bill or another. "It's hard out there," she said.
But Stubblefield still finds things to be grateful for.
"I'm thankful for life, I'm thankful for family," she said. "I'm thankful for Houstonians who reach out like they're reaching out."
Hunger in Texas
One in seven Texans are food insecure, according to the Houston Food Bank, which defines food insecurity as a "lack (of) consistent access to enough nutritious food to fuel a regularly healthy lifestyle." In southeast Texas, this translates to about 1 million people, per the Food Bank.
That's a problem that's only been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic -- not just in Texas -- but across the country, as the coronavirus has contributed to a supply chain crunch that's left some Americans without enough to eat.
CNN reported last month that shortages of labor and truckers are making it harder and more expensive to package food products and transport them where they need to go. And a survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation found Thanksgiving dinner will cost Americans 14% more this year due to increased pricing and economic disruptions.
In response, local food banks and events like Super Feast are doing their best to pick up the slack, despite their own challenges.
One such challenge is growing demand: Before the pandemic, the Houston Food Bank distributed about 500,000 pounds of food per day, according to the food bank. During the pandemic, the food bank distributed between 800,000 and 1 million pounds of food per day.
It appears, however, that demand has dropped from its peak: Last month, the food bank distributed on average almost 688,000 pounds or products per day -- a 126% increase compared to October 2019, per the Houston Food Bank.
Back at the George R. Brown Convention Center, Tiffany Bernard, a single mother of five, drove through the drive-up distribution area, where volunteers stuffed her minivan with a frozen turkey and other food.
The pandemic has been especially hard for Bernard and her family. It's hard to afford the basics, she said, like rent, gas, clothes and haircuts.
"Sometimes I have to decide, 'Am I going to get my diabetic medicine, or am I going to pay a bill? Am I going to buy gas, or catch the bus, or put the kids on the bus?' Just decisions, decisions."
But she makes it work, crediting her "strong family," as well as her faith in God. "And I've been getting help from places like this and the food pantries and things, and I appreciate all the help."
City Wide Club of America organizers told CNN they're dealing with a shortage of volunteers in addition to supply chain problems: They usually have between 6,000 and 8,000 volunteers, but this year they have about 3,500 -- a decrease they believe is due to fears about volunteering during the pandemic.
That didn't stop Makeba Dorsey and her two sons, John and Donovan, ages 7 and 17, who volunteered Wednesday, helping to sort nonperishable donations with dozens of volunteers.
Dorsey is battling cancer, she said, and she hopes volunteering teaches her sons to be grateful for what they have and the importance of giving back.
"I'm just thankful to be alive today and be able to come out and help," Dorsey said.
'Love in action'
As Lewis stepped into the industrial kitchen inside the convention center Wednesday, the area buzzed with sounds of pans being shuffled and knives hitting cutting boards.
Some volunteers were marinating the turkeys for the Thanksgiving meal and then tossing them into boiling water.
"I love volunteering," said Linda Jones as she grabbed spices from a makeshift pantry on a table that had condiments and canned vegetables stacked up high. She was there volunteering with a group from City Cathedral Church, she said.
Other volunteers were cutting yams by hand, the chopping sounds bouncing off the walls. Volunteers like Curlie Jackson were also placing the sliced delicacies into bins for the chef.
As she sliced yams, Jackson said she enjoyed volunteering because she liked meeting new people and giving back.
A few counters down, Robert Goins was shuffling pans of fresh cornbread from a cooling station to a counter.
"It's a great opportunity to help give back," said Goins.
This is Goins' 26th year volunteering for the event, he said. And while wearing a mask and social distancing while volunteering is different, the spirit of Thanksgiving, he said, is the same.
Leroy Woodard, a founding member of "Super Feast," told CNN the event began decades ago in his grandmother's kitchen. After decades, he's still volunteering today because this is "love in action."
As to why Lewis continues organizing this event after more than four decades, she said she likes to give back and give hope.
"I have lived a very blessed life and I always want to show people that there's help and hope on the other side of the tunnel," Lewis said. "If you just go through the challenge, you'll get through the challenge."
And when the Thanksgiving Super Feast is over Thursday, Lewis says her work is only beginning: "On Christmas Eve we will also provide toys and gifts for the children, to brighten their day," she said.
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