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Free Thanksgiving dinner options in Vermont decrease with changing times

  • Volunteers Toni Hover, of South Royalton, Vt., helps to mix squash with John Dumville, a selectboard member in Royalton, on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022, in South Royalton. They and other volunteers are preparing a Thanksgiving community meal at Vermont Law and Graduate School for about 350 people. There will be a sit-down dinner as well as meals delivered to homes in the area. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Shirley Jefferson ladles juices onto cut turkey at Vermont Law and Graduate School on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022, in South Royalton, Vt. Jefferson is one of the co-cordinators for a Thanksgiving community meal at the school. Organizers are expecting to serve 350 meals. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Eben Brock, left, food service director and executive chef at Vermont Law and Graduate School, Shirley Jefferson, Vice President of Community Engagement and Government Relations Associate Professor of Law, and Kat Paiva, catering manager, sample the turkey on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022, that will be served for the next day's Thanksgiving community dinner. Jefferson is one of the coordinators for the dinner. They are expected to serve 350 meals, some at the school and some will be delivered to area homes. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Published: 11/23/2022 9:26:55 PM
Modified: 11/24/2022 2:43:58 PM

For three decades, the free public Thanksgiving dinner at downtown Burlington’s Sweetwaters American Bistro surmounted countless challenges, from finding enough tables to seat an annual count of 1,000 people to switching to takeout during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It never crossed my mind not to do something,” longtime owner David Melincoff said of all the hurdles.

Then Melincoff sold the restaurant this year and retired, bringing an end — at least temporarily — to a 31-year tradition.

“With COVID and not being able to get enough staff,” he said, “it’s different now than it was.”

Burlington is not the only Vermont community to stop hosting a free Thanksgiving dinner. Brattleboro and Montpelier also have traded sit-down meals open to all for limited takeout options for people most in need.

“We’re really excited to provide Thanksgiving-themed meals, but unfortunately we don’t have the funding to be able to do anything more than our normal distribution,” said Amanda Witman, who works with the Vermont Everyone Eats program and, specifically, its Brattleboro branch.

Before COVID, Sweetwaters hosted an annual Burlington event that featured 1,500 pounds of turkey and 50 gallons of gravy served on formal place settings.

“It’s not a burden at all but a nice reminder of what you should be grateful for,” Melincoff said at the time. “A lot of the people who come in will tell you it’s the only time they get to sit down in a restaurant and be waited on.”

Sweetwaters turned to takeout in 2020 and 2021 before selling its Church Street Marketplace building this year to The Farmhouse Group, which plans on relocating its nearby Pascolo Ristorante there.

With the space under renovation, The Farmhouse Group is donating 1,000 meals for distribution by local social service agencies and committed to continuing some form of Thanksgiving generosity long term, owner Jed Davis said.

Brattleboro and Montpelier would have marked the 50th anniversary of their free public Thanksgiving dinners this year if the pandemic had not brought changes.

In Brattleboro, volunteers once fed more than 500 people at a public event. This week, the local Everyone Eats program will provide turkey dinners to people most in need.

“Most of those meals are being distributed through community organizations to their clients,” Witman said.

In Montpelier, the Washington County Youth Service Bureau used to offer table service for 800 people. This week, the National Life Group and its cafeteria provider, Sodexo, will give out free takeout meals to those who made reservations.

Some places are returning to sit-down events. In Rutland, the Loyal Order of Moose will continue its half-century Thanksgiving dinner tradition with an in-person gathering Thursday — although it required participants to sign up last week so organizers could anticipate demand.

A few Vermont communities are extending open invitations to meals this week.

In St. Johnsbury, the United Community Church has taken over Kingdom Community Services’ past efforts, with an event set for Thursday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 1325 Main St.

In South Royalton, the 23rd annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner is set for Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Vermont Law and Graduate School’s Chase Center.

Anti-hunger advocates are encouraging people in other parts of the state to contact their local food shelves or 211 to learn about other holiday meal options.


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