Bread for the City ends annual 'Holiday Helpings' early due to unprecedented demand Bread for the City has stopped offering free turkey and gift cards. But here are other places delivering meals for Thanksgiving.
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Bread for the City ends annual 'Holiday Helpings' early due to unprecedented demand

Bread for the City, one of D.C.'s leading food banks, ends Thanksgiving program early amid high demand. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

Bread for the City unexpectedly announced it would end its annual Holiday Helpings program early. The decades-old event assists D.C. residents who need extra support during the pricey holiday season with a free turkey and a $50 gift card. It typically kicks off at the start of the month and runs through Wednesday, Nov. 23. But Bread for the City ended several days early on Friday, Nov. 18 because they couldn't keep pace with the unprecedented demand.

The nonprofit, which serves low-income residents year-round, initially estimated that 12,000 people would participate in Holiday Helpings, roughly the same number as before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the organization's Chief Development Officer Ashley Domm. But within the first two days of the month-long program, she says 2,400 people visited the Northwest and Southeast centers of the nonprofit. By the end of the day on Thursday, Nov. 17, Bread for the City had served at least 16,000 people — already 33.3% more than anticipated.

"Over the last three years, we've seen the type of demand that we've just not experienced in our 48 years of serving the low-income community here in Washington, D.C.," says Domm. "We thought that perhaps as the pandemic waned or the years went on, we would go back to pre-pandemic levels. But now we understand that we are never going to go back to pre-pandemic levels."

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Domm says the demand lays bare the great need across the city for food and money. The holidays are an especially expensive time of year, particularly this Thanksgiving. The cost of a turkey — the centerpiece of many Thanksgiving meals — is up 21% from last year, according to Farm Bureau's survey.

No one is turned away during Holiday Helpings, says Domm. She says staff often sign up new clients who hear about their other services while picking up a turkey. Bread for the City offers groceries, clothing, health care, and other social services year-round to low-income residents who visit their centers.

Holiday Helpings has changed to adapt to the evolving circumstances since its inception 30 years ago. Prior to the pandemic, an estimated 9,000 to 10,000 people participated annually, receiving turkey and groceries for making Thanksgiving sides. Then in 2020, Domm says supply chain issues and pandemic safety concerns made distributing turkeys challenging so they offered $50 gift cards instead. Participation surged to an unprecedented 17,000 people. The next year, in 2021, they passed out gift cards again, this time increasing them to $75 and distributing to some 15,000 to 16,000 people.

"This has been the worst year for me; there are fewer items at the grocery store due to inflation, and some things are more expensive now," native Washingtonian, Audrey Station, who participated in the Holiday Helpings program in 2021, told Bread for the City. "It's why the debit card will be more important than any other year."

In 2022, Bread for the City welcomed people back to the centers, offering them a turkey and a $50 gift card. The high demand became clear when Holiday Helpings kicked off November 1. Domm says Bread for the City quickly realized theydid not have the space or staff to manage such long lines. Additionally, they worried the the long lines contradicted their desired approach to receive people with dignity and respect.

The Chief Executive Officer George Jones announced last week that they wouldn't just end Holiday Helpings earlier than scheduled but would close entirely until Monday, Nov. 28. The provider said on its website that it was a very difficult decision. Domm says not having enough staff to facilitate lines and having so many people waiting outside in the cold were both safety concerns that contribution to their decision.

DC News Now reported last week that a robbery of ten $50 gift cards preceded the closure, but Domm says the theft had nothing to do with their decision and represented just a few hundred dollars of the $1.6 million total cost of the program. (The case remains under active investigation, says an MPD spokesperson, and no arrests have been made.)

"It's unfortunate," says Domm. "But it's also unfortunate that someone's in such a dire situation that they they have to steal in that way. It's also unfortunate that people are in such need that they come and wait in line for our services at this volume."

Domm says the volume ultimately underscores the need for more support for low-income residents, including from the local and federal governments.

Bread for the City is already strategizing next year's Holiday Helpings and considering partnering with another organization, says Domm, adding that they are one of two organizations that they know of in D.C. giving away money during this holiday. While Bread for the City is closed this week, here are other events for people who may need extra support this Thanksgiving, courtesy of the city's Department of Parks and Recreation:

  • Monday, November 21: Emery Heights Thanksgiving Turkey Giveaway at Emery Heights Community Center (5801 Georgia Ave NW) from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
  • Tuesday, November 22: Roving Leader Friendsgiving at Kennedy Recreation Center (1401 7th St NW) from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
  • Tuesday, November 22: Ridge Road Turkey Giveaway at Ridge Road Recreation Center (830 Ridge Road SE) from  12:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.
  • Tuesday, November 22:  Annual Harvest Holiday Intergenerational Fest & Fun at Hillcrest Recreation Center (3100 Denver St SE) from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

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