correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled the first name of Jamal Greenlee. The article has been corrected.

Just after 7 a.m., dozens of volunteers lined up around a metal table at the center of the Food & Friends facility in Northeast Washington, ready to start packing food and delivering it to hundreds of families on Thanksgiving Day.

An organizer called out at the head of the line as he lifted up a blue Ikea bag, “All right, first set of bags, coming up,” and the assembly line cheered.

The operation, hosted by D.C.-based organization Food & Friends, has happened for years. Typically, the group delivers frozen meals and other dishes to clients who are chronically or seriously ill, but on Thanksgiving Day, they prep a special meal that goes out to about 4,000 people, according to the organization. Volunteers and staff cook roughly 8,520 pounds of roasted turkey, 1,065 pounds of roasted potatoes and other sides, with the goal to get all the meals on doorsteps by the afternoon on Thanksgiving Day.

Since the coronavirus began spreading in the United States in 2020, the organization saw need increase steadily among its client base from about 3,000 people before the pandemic to an estimated 4,030 people now. The group’s clients are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus and often stayed home. The Thanksgiving event aims to provide food that’s ready to eat and healthy, so people can focus on spending time with their families and caregivers.

“I hope when you’re sitting down for dinner, you think about everybody else who gets to sit down for dinner because of the work you did,” executive director Carrie Stoltzfus said to the volunteers before they started working.

The organization began in 1988, during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, to help families who were affected. It has since grown its client base and operations. While there are volunteers who help deliver and prep food, there are also registered dietitians and other staff that tailor food to clients’ needs.

“That’s one of the things that makes us unique,” Stoltzfus said in an interview. “It’s like a prescription for the right nutrition.”

More than 300 volunteers signed up to help on Thanksgiving Day this year, and 200 of those delivered meals. Every volunteer was required to submit proof of vaccination and wear a mask while working.

Before the vaccine mandate was imposed, volunteers had to stand about six feet apart as they put together meals, so they could comply with social distancing guidelines. Fewer volunteers came in before the vaccines had been distributed, since only so many people could fit in the building safely.

Marcella Usher, 62, signed up for a shift on Thursday for the first time in over a year. Usher has volunteered for about 26 years, but last year, she didn’t participate in her normal shifts because she wanted to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But now, she has the vaccine. Thanksgiving Day was her personal kickoff to begin volunteering again so she could show gratitude “for all the good things that have happened in spite of covid,” she said.

“I know from my experience that giving back and being a part of a community makes a world of a difference in you as a person,” said Usher, who drove in Thursday from Cheltenham, Md.

The assembly line moved smoothly. Staff came around to check that the volunteers were packing the bags correctly, so the bread would not get smashed underneath the heavy weight of the fruit or another food item. Volunteers added small containers of braised collards and buttered corn.

As the assembly line prepped the food, other volunteers were staggered throughout the day to deliver food across the city. There were freezers outside the building so the meals could easily be moved into cars.

Ghana Kelly, 51, drove about four minutes away from the building to drop a meal off to Barbara Greenlee, a seven-year-long client of Food & Friends. Kelly was accompanied by Becca Kahn, one of the organization’s registered dietitians.

As soon as Greenlee opened the door, her dog ran out to greet both Kahn and Kelly. As they organized the food, Kahn explained that each item was rich in vitamins and other nutrients.

Greenlee is considered at high risk for the coronavirus, and even though she’s immunized, she stays home to avoid contracting the virus. Food & Friends helps her stay home. She recalled how the organization also used to also help her son Jamal Greenlee, who lived with her before he died last year from injuries he received during a 2019 stabbing.

“He was a good kid,” Greenlee, 55, said. “He was well known in his community.”

Kelly nodded her head as she listened closely to Greenlee. As they talked, Greenlee’s son Eric Jones pulled out a blanket with photos of Jamal Greenlee printed on it, so Kahn and Kelly could see.

Greenlee told Kelly that she’s still going through her grief but that Food & Friends has been a great support system. As she unwrapped the roasted turkey, she told Kahn and Kelly that Thursday was “all about Thanksgiving.”