A longstanding volunteer effort to feed those in need on Thanksgiving in Greensboro aims to serve even more people this year, but organizers are asking for help to pull it off.
Early on Thanksgiving morning this year, sometime around 4:30 a.m., Ted Hoffler will pull Excalibur out of a rock and set to work, just as he has for decades.
Hoffler, one of several longtime restaurant industry folks behind the effort to feed neighbors in need, has probably told the same joking story a thousand times over the years. He’s talking about his electric turkey carving knife Excalibur, which has been with him since the beginning and was handed down through his family.
This Thanksgiving will be the 29th year that Hoffler dedicates his day to making sure that those who would otherwise go without have a hearty meal. Giving back and saying thanks to the community at large is what this day is about, he says. Being in a room full of people that day who just want to help is the most magical place in the world, Hoffler says, and he implores people to be there to witness it, more for their own benefit than anything else.
There’s a small group of people who have been a part of the Community Tables initiative since the beginning, including Hoffler and the organization’s co-chairs Mary Lacklen and Ken Conrad. The number of people that shows up to eat or has a meal delivered has grown each year — this Thanksgiving, it’s expected to cross 5,000 and possibly reach 6,000, which Lacklen said is “a big jump.” What started with a small core group, growing out of the now-defunct Guilford County Restaurant Association, has mushroomed into a team of 300 volunteers, many of them regulars at the annual affair.
Recently Lacklen, a community volunteer and activist, reflected privately on the duration of Community Tables meal and realized, “That’s half my life.”
The desire to serve and fill a need is only part of her motivation.
“To me, it puts dignity back in the holiday, and that’s one of the things it was missing,” she said. “It’s expensive to have a Thanksgiving meal with everything.”
Lacklen and others initially provided Thanksgiving meals on site at various hosts, later adding delivered meals through different local service agencies such as Senior Resources and Triad Health Project. When their efforts outgrew the Salvation Army they moved to Urban Ministry, and when that became too small, they relocated to the Greensboro Coliseum.
A wide network of volunteers contributes to making the free meal a reality — Victory Junction cooks the turkeys, and will make the mashed potatoes this year, too. The Painted Plate is responsible for the stuffing and gravy, but the rest is prepared and packaged by volunteers at the donated space at the coliseum. With Excalibur in hand, Hoffler will oversee the turkey carvings.
Lacklen describes the process as “a well-oiled machine,” but Community Tables relies on people to donate money as well as time to operate, especially in a year like this where anticipated need for the meal has already climbed. That’s on top of an existing steady rise in recent years, Lacklen said.
Practically all of the money that funds Community Tables comes from individual donors, and none of it goes towards administration or overhead. A year-round fund, orchestrated by the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, allows people to give year round, but Lacklen is hoping a push before the holiday will help not only with this year, but longer term viability.
Part of the reason demand has risen for the free Thanksgiving meal, Lacklen said, is that Community Tables has reached out to churches who are likely tapping into a deeper food insecurity that extends beyond the area’s homeless population. That stark reality shouldn’t surprise anyone around here, especially after the Greensboro/High Point metro area was recently rated as the most food insecure area of the country, meaning people struggle to afford putting food on the table.
With a broader network supporting the effort and reaching more families in town, Lacklen said she expects the number of meals requested will continue to grow. Over the duration of the Thanksgiving meal, she estimates they have served 82,000 meals.
Community Tables also supports a similar effort on Christmas day. Back when the Thanksgiving meal started, the Guilford County Restaurant Association modeled the event after something Marc Freiberg at the old Hams — where the Mad Hatter is now located on West Friendly Avenue — had already implemented on Christmas, Lacklen said. Freiberg was determined to make sure everyone had a good meal to eat on the holiday, and now his daughter carries on the tradition at her establishment, Bender’s Tavern, Lacklen said.
Community Tables serves the Thanksgiving meal at the Congregational United Church of Christ, pastored by tireless progressive advocate Julie Peeples. There’s live music, tablecloths, donated floral arrangements from Plants & Answers, volunteer servers and more designed to make the meal festive and communal — the kind of place, Lacklen said, that a family would want to go and that avoids the stigma of a soup kitchen.
This year, free buses will also run from Center City Park, Urban Ministry and the Interactive Resource Center to the UCC and back from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. to help ensure that all who want to attend are able, Lacklen said.
All told, the Thanksgiving will cost around $20,000, she said.
But the outpouring of support for the event — and its Christmas counterpart — is moving, Lacklen said.
“Greensboro has such an immense population of people who are willing to pitch in and help,” she said, adding: “A lot of people have built it into their Thanksgiving tradition.”
To donate to the free Community Tables Thanksgiving meal, visit cfgg.org and select the Thanksgiving/Holiday Fund. Find volunteer sign-up information on the Community Tables Facebook page.