As the pandemic continues into its eighth month, Middle Tennessee charities have had to restructure themselves to keep up with the increasing demand, and for Thanksgiving they’re busier than ever. 

“What feels more like a recession time is what we’re currently dealing with, this sort of prolonged time of need, versus right after the tornado. We’re really built to respond quickly to disasters like that,” said Ally Parsons, senior director of marketing and communications at Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee. 

“No one really could have known the pandemic would come and that it would be as long lasting as it has been and the economy would continue to suffer and all of these people would be out of work. No one could have predicted that,” she said.

For Nashville’s charities, the toughest choice was prioritizing safety over need. Volunteer work had to be limited or not allowed due to safety concerns. Money normally spent on food went instead to cleaning services. Since most restaurants are struggling and cooking less food, charities are no longer able to depend on them for donations.

Quanita Thomas, fondly known as “Q” (center) hands out a food basket to Carlos Williams who lives in the North Nashville neighborhood. Thomas is also an associate pastor at the Historic First Community Church in North Nashville. (Photo by John Partipilo)

Nashville Rescue Mission, which housed 700 people pre-COVID, is now operating at half capacity. The remaining homeless people were placed at the fairgrounds and Municipal Auditorium. 

“We don’t know how long this is going to last. The reality is are we ever going to be able to take all of those people back? I sure hope so,” said Cheryl Chunn, senior director of development at Nashville Rescue Mission.

Shelters had to be created for residents getting tested for COVID-19 and for residents under quarantine. In eight months, Nashville Rescue Mission officials spent $200,000 on cleaning services.

Since the volunteer workforce is limited due to safety concerns, staff have had to fill in and serve, clocking in several hours of overtime. Every resident is required to have a COVID-19 test within 48 hours in order to stay. Temperatures are taken, which is difficult with mentally-ill residents. This is the new normal.

“We’ve really stretched ourselves to try and do some of the same things we would be doing pre-covid,” said Chunn.

But while restaurants and volunteers had less capacity to help, donors have filled the need.The annual Thanksgiving Fry continued as planned on Tuesday, although in limited capacity, and 500 turkeys were fried Tuesday to feed the homeless on Thanksgiving.

“The money that came in from April to August was unbelievable. We really weren’t out there saying ‘help us, help us, help us,’ but people stepped up,” said Chunn.

Room at the Inn is still serving 150 people per day, but it’s a lot harder since they’ve hit pause on all volunteer work since March. 

“We typically would have 300 to 400 volunteers each month… so we’ve been significantly impacted by the pandemic,” said Melanie Barnett, community development director at Room At the Inn.

People gather on Tuesdays through Fridays at the Historic First Community Church for meals and water. The Church and Project Connect Nashville are in partnership. (Photo by John Partipilo)

For Thanksgiving, they’ve partnered with the Nashville State Community College’s culinary arts program. Students prepared the thanksgiving meal this year, which employees picked up on Tuesday and will be warming up to serve 200 guests on Thanksgiving. Without the ability to raise money through in-person events, the organization leaned on partnerships to continue serving the homeless. 

“It’s been a challenge but we’re very thankful and there’ve been a lot of good things happening though the pandemic,” said Barnett.

According to Feeding America, more than 50 million people nationally are projected to experience hunger, meaning the need for food banks like Second Harvest is larger than ever. In some cases, people who previously donated are now in need themselves, according to Parsons. 

“We’ve had people reach out and say ‘I used to be able to give to you. Now I’m finding myself in need of your services, but as soon as I can I want to volunteer and give back,’” said Parsons. 

People are doing what little they can, even if it’s just spreading the word, said Parsons.  Although they will be closed on Thanksgiving, employees have done a lot of distributions in weeks leading up to the holidays, including partnering with local health departments to feed families under quarantine. 

People in North Nashville line up socially distanced to receive a hot meal. About 150 people a day are fed per day and 55,000 meals have been served since the tornado. (Photo by John Partipilo)

“So we are being as nimble as possible with our agencies to help them be able to provide and keep up with the need,” said Parsons. 

The organization had previously relied on grocery stores and now has had to purchase pre-packaged food to keep up with demand. Donations from government agencies and donors have helped, so through trial and error, the organization  has figured out how to continue working and keeping people safe. 

But this won’t be the case every week, and the organization is prepared to change course with each new problem. 

“We have a mission, and that’s to get food to people in need. We’re going to figure out how to do that no matter what is put in our way, even if it’s a pandemic,” she said.