Thanksgiving charity meals are a to-go experience in 2020

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — A few minutes before noon on Thanksgiving Day, two friends stopped their black pickup truck at Peterboro and Second.

"Thanksgiving meals here," one of the men, Eric L. Johnson, announced as a group of men approached the truck near the Detroit Shipping Company food court, where they would soon be handing out boxed to-go Thanksgiving meals of turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, biscuits, green beans, mac and cheese, and cake.

"Do you have any hats?" one of the men asked.

"Men's gloves?" another one asked.

Cleveland Evans handed black skullcaps and stretchy, one-size-fits-all gloves to the two.

Chef Max Hardy, center, of COOP Caribbean Fusion restaurant inside the Detroit Shipping Company, works with volunteer George Tinnon, left, and COOP manager Alexis Fox, right, to prepare and package up Thanksgiving meals for the needy inside the Detroit Shipping Company on Thanksgiving Day.

A few minutes later, the Detroit Shipping Company on Peterboro opened its doors to distribute 300-plus boxed Thanksgiving meals to anyone who wanted them.

With that wave of people served, and no one left in line, Johnson looked over his shoulder and saw the next group to reach just a few blocks away in the Cass Corridor.

Corner by corner, group by group, even one by one, the pair handed out at least 200 additional meals on Thursday.

If this were any other year than the year of a pandemic that's killed more than 8,700 Michiganians and 262,000 Americans, Johnson and Evans would be hosting their seventh annual Thanksgiving meal at the UAW Local 7 building on Conner, near Jefferson.

Today:Thanksgiving 2020 'a little different' in Detroit, including no parade watchers

Those Thanksgiving bashes usually run about four hours, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and include not only a meal, but access to hair and nail care.

"Sometimes we get people who haven't had a haircut in two years, literally," Evans said. "We are here to help."

Cleveland Evans, left, and Eric L. Johnson, right, hand out homecooked Thanksgiving meals at Peterboro and Second in Detroit.

For safety reasons, and to avoid putting volunteers or the people they're trying to serve at risk, the two men, friends since middle school, decided to take their service on the road.

Inside the Detroit Shipping Company, chefs Maxcel Hardy, of Coop Caribbean Fusion, and Genevieve Vang, of Bangkok 96 Street Food, and a small group of volunteers boxed up 300-plus to-go meals, under a charitable effort called Full Plates, Full Hearts.

June 2018:Detroit Shipping Company holding soft opening Friday

Full Plates, Full Hearts is a collaboration of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, the Detroit Restaurant and Lodging Association, and Detroit Shipping Company.

"Normally, you'd have everybody sitting down together and enjoying a meal," Hardy said. "So it would be very family-oriented and fun. We would give out gift bags — there was a lot more going on."

Instead, this year, none of the people given meals were allowed to pass the front desk. Behind that desk, a team of fewer than a dozen workers, who arrived between 5:30  and 6 a.m., prepared the meals, so that new arrivals would have hot food.

Vang admitted it was a bit different this year, not being able to see people enjoy the food they prepared. 

"When people eat what you prepare, it makes your day," Vang said. "It makes you feel very special, like your food must be good. Or when they eat and want to take home the leftovers. That makes you want to keep going."

The volunteering didn't end Thursday for Hardy. On Friday, he is collaborating with Gordon Food Service and other partners to provide a noontime, post-Thanksgiving hot meal at Crossroads of Michigan, at 2424 W. Grand. Crossroads is the only soup kitchen on Detroit's west side that serves a hot meal on Sundays, said Sister Elizabeth Walters, supervisor of the kitchen.

So to be able to have a meal service on a Friday "is a real blessing, and a gift," Walters said.

Hardy, she said, "has a love for Detroit like I've never seen."

Crossroads, too, has had to transition to meal boxes rather than sit-down meals. Where 800 to 1,000 people used to come out for the Sunday sitdown meals, only about half that number come for the take-out.

"COVID has hurt all of us in so many ways," Walters lamented. "Everything is so different with this pandemic. I hope those people are all being served in some way."

It would have been easier, Hardy admitted, to merely double-up the Thanksgiving offering and serve that for a second day.

Jon Hartzell, one of the owners of Detroit Shipping Company, hands a chef-prepared Thanksgiving meal to-go to a needy person at Detroit Shipping Company on Thanksgiving Day.

But Friday's meal has a menu of its own because it has a theme of its own, an anti-hunger message. The event will be called Orange Friday. Orange, Hardy explained, is the color of hunger.

"Thanksgiving's over, so let's have some fun," Hardy said of the Friday meal, which will be a "Caribbean-soul fusion."