Local News

Tuesday, Nov 20 2012 05:03 PM

Group distributes food, love on Thanksgiving

BY REBECCA KHEEL Californian staff writer rkheel@bakersfield.com

Number of volunteers: 2,000.

Pounds of mashed potatoes: 5,000.

Meals to be prepared: 20,000.

Those are some of the specs for this year's Love for Thanksgiving program. Now in its fifth year and larger than ever, Love for Thanksgiving prepares complete turkey dinners to deliver to down-on-their luck families and to-go boxes of Thanksgiving favorites for individuals living on the streets.

"It's only one meal. We understand that," said Brandon Smith, who started the program. "But in my heart, it's about people getting out and giving."

Love for Thanksgiving was started five years ago by a group of friends who decided to give up their Thanksgivings to cook and bring food to the needy, Smith said. That first year, there were 20 volunteers and they prepared 1,200 meals.

Each year, the number of meals volunteers aimed to prepare doubled, Smith said. Last year, the group prepared 10,000 meals -- which included 400 turkeys.

And this year, the group is aiming to double again, with 20,000 meals.

"Those first couple years I got a lot of flak," Smith said. "But last year there were no questions."

Each year the crew of volunteers, now 2,000 people, prepares the works -- turkeys, mashed potatoes, stuffing, yams, etc. They then deliver it to families' homes and to homeless people living in the streets or motels. They find people to deliver to by reaching out to schools, churchs and nonprofits, Smith said.

The people involved pay for all the food out of pocket, Smith said. The total cost this year is about $100,000, he estimated.

This year for the first time, there was one monetary donation, said Danielle Thompson, the self-proclaimed yam lady. A friend of hers who lives out of state donated $500, which she used to buy 700 trays and lids for the yams.

Thompson said her favorite part is seeing people unite for one cause.

"It's just people wanting to do goodwill and spread love," she said.

Love for Thanksgiving does not have a permit from the Kern County Environmental Health Division to hand out food, Smith said. "If they want to prosecute me, then they can try," he said.

Donna Fenton, chief of Environmental Health's Food, Land and Water Division, said there are a number of exemptions under which programs like Love for Thanksgiving would not need a permit. For example, food cooked in a church and taken to a family's private home would not need a permit.

But handing out food to the homeless in a public place like a park would. Part of the reason is because the organizations would be tarnished if for some reason the food was tainted, Fenton said.

"We try really hard because we appreciate the value of these organizations providing food to hungry people, so we try really hard to make it work," she said.

Andy Rader has been part of Love for Thanksgiving since its inception. On Tuesday afternoon, Rader was looking forward to "Turkey Tuesday" that night when he and other volunteers started to prepare 1,000 turkeys to be cooked Wednesday. A crowd was to gather at The Bridge Bible Church on Stockdale Highway to help prepare the turkeys.

Rader doesn't see Love for Thanksgiving as much different than other charitable programs on Thanksgiving. But he is proud about how it's grown in five years.

"It's cool to see people in need have a meal on Thanksgiving," he said.

Doug Bennett, who started volunteering with the program the first year, was nervous about switching from stuffing duty to potatoes. He had been in charge of stuffing every year, but this year, his and his wife's job is potatoes. Two-thousand pounds of the 5,000 total pounds of potatoes will be cooked at Valley Bible Fellowship Church, where Bennett attends services.

"I have to peel them. Gosh, it's the worst," Bennett said.

But Bennett continues working with Love for Thanksgiving because he knows what it's like to be hungry, he said. When we was 16 years old, he ran away from home and lived in a shed in a friend's backyard. He went to bed hungry each night, he said.

Now that he's not hungry, he loves giving back and seeing the reaction when he hands a homeless person a meal, he said.

"Their eye lights up," Bennett said. "And they go, 'Really? For me?'"

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