The annual Durango Community Thanksgiving has been canceled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, but local organizations are filling in the gaps to ensure La Plata County families have hot food for the holiday.
The community Thanksgiving, organized by a group of local religious organizations, has been going on for at least 35 years and feeds about 1,000 people annually. But this year, confirmed COVID-19 cases rose dramatically in November, prompting La Plata County to move to “Level Red” and a slew of stricter public health restrictions.
“We were just not able to safely provide the dinner this year,” said Tonya Wales, Durango Community Thanksgiving coordinator. “We did not want to take any type of a risk with spreading COVID-19 through the Thanksgiving dinner.”
At first, Durango Shared Ecumenical Ministries, the group of religious organizations that plans the event, intended to set up stations at the La Plata County Fairgrounds for people to pick up drive-thru and grab-and-go meals.
“As the concerns started growing ... we could not come up with a solution where we could comply with the health and safety requirements and still put on the Thanksgiving dinner,” Wales said.
In a typical year, the fairgrounds is bustling with activity before Thanksgiving. Community partners are cooking turkeys, with volunteers racing to carve them as fast as they arrive.
Local churches bring side dishes, including mashed potatoes, stuffing and cranberry sauce, and a steady stream of desserts donated by individual members of the community.
“It’s a super-festive, happy atmosphere,” Wales said. “I’m very sad. It is such a beautiful community event – it brings everyone together.”
To replace the community dinner, Manna soup kitchen in Durango plans to serve about 600 grab-and-go Thanksgiving meals between 10 a.m. and noon Thursday. Manna is accepting food donations before Thanksgiving at the west-facing entrance of the building.
“There was no doubt in anybody’s mind that, if (the meal) couldn’t be facilitated this year, we wanted to do it,” said Ann Morse, director of the soup kitchen. “If they go back to doing it next year, that’s great too. It’s all about the community and making sure meals are being provided every day.”
The Durango Community Thanksgiving is already planning its comeback for next year, Wales said.
A disrupted holiday“Holidays are a tough time for anybody, and now adding COVID on top of it, it’s just so much,” Morse said.
The level of food insecurity in La Plata County has increased this year during the pandemic, said local food assistance providers.
Since the start of the pandemic in Colorado, Manna has been serving double its normal number of meals and distributing more pounds of groceries than ever before. In October, it served 8,984 meals. In October 2019, it served 5,153, Morse said.
All around La Plata County, community organizations are trying to make sure families have food available for Thanksgiving.
On Monday, the Durango Food Bank distributed free Thanksgiving food boxes to La Plata County residents. The La Plata Electric Association local union chapter collected more than 3,600 pounds of food and $270 in cash donations Saturday in Durango. The chapter distributed the local proceeds to the Durango Food Bank in time for the holiday.
The Durango-La Plata Senior Center distributed about 400 Thanksgiving meals in the past week to seniors around the county, and Pine River Shares in Bayfield handed out more than 200 turkey dinner baskets to county residents Monday.
The Boys & Girls Club of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the local tribal community held a Thanksgiving food drive and provided 40 gift cards to families in La Plata County and Cortez.
“Especially with the holidays, we don’t want anybody to feel isolated,” Morse said. “We want to make sure everybody’s fed. We want to make sure everybody has a hot meal.”