This article appeared in the Houston Chronicle

Shawn Thompson arrived Thursday morning with his three young children at a place where he never expected to spend part of Thanksgiving: the George R. Brown Convention Center.

With Thompson struggling to find food service work amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, the South Houston resident looked to organizers of the 42nd annual City Wide Club Super Feast for help during the holidays. Thompson willingly waited for donated food in a line of vehicles snaking about a mile around the convention center, trying to keep his antsy kids entertained in the back of his black Honda Civic.

“We’re doing OK for now, but every little bit helps these days,” said Thompson, 37. “We’re just thankful that somebody is still doing things like this, even with everything going on.”

Thousands of area residents and volunteers descended upon the center Thursday morning for a Super Feast unlike any before, with the traditional buffet meal replaced by workers loading boxes of Thanksgiving fixings into cars, carts and open arms.

The pandemic forced organizers with City Wide Club, a Bellaire-based social services nonprofit, to call an audible from the annual ritual of crowding 20,000-plus people into the facility, switching instead to a grab-and-go delivery system. Organizers planned for a few thousand families to pick up packages designed to feed several people for about a week — including Turkey Day.

The change meant City Wide Club needed fewer volunteers — about 2,500, down from roughly 8,000 in recent years — but organizers still faced new hurdles.

Nationwide demand for food because of the economic downturn left staffers scrambling for donations and goods down to the final hours, said Leroy Woodard, the group’s executive director. The lack of hot meals also meant those without kitchen access could go without Thanksgiving dinner.

When the feast finally arrived, a different atmosphere hung over the center. Typically, the food hall hums with conversation, the buzzing of clippers from complimentary haircuts and excited squeals of children grabbing donated toys. Instead, an eerie quiet filled the cavernous room as final preparations were made.

“It was the first time I’ve ever seen the kitchen cleared out,” Woodard said. “We normally have hundreds of people in there deboning and sorting and cooking vegetables and stirring the pot.”

Still, the feast brought plenty of cheer to families and volunteers.

Martina Rodriguez came prepared with her husband, a trio of elementary school-age kids and a small black pushcart, opting to go through the walk-up line at the front of the center rather than waiting by car to make a pickup at the back of the building. She watched as a few dozen workers marshaled plastic bags of food across two lines of foldout tables in front of the convention center.

“It’s going to be a strange day, because normally we have a bunch of family together (for dinner), and today it’s just going to be us,” said Rodriguez, 39, who lives on the city’s east side. “It’s not what we expected, but nothing is really normal right now.”

Ricky Watson, a northeast Houston native, excitedly picked through his bags after completing the line, which moved swiftly after the 10 a.m. opening.

“Don’t care what’s happening: You can’t beat turkey on Thanksgiving,” said Watson, 47, who planned to spend the holiday with his parents and two siblings. “Everything else is just gravy.”

For Deondra Jackson, a Super Feast volunteer for about 20 years, the revamped delivery method meant fewer conversations with families and hungry residents — though the fleeting interactions remained meaningful.

“We’re still able to greet them in their cars, and there’s a lot of waving and gratitude shown,” Jackson said at the end of her four-hour shift with her eighth-grade daughter, Mackenzie. “We can give that little bit of time out of your day to give back, and that’s what Thanksgiving should be about.”

City Wide Club leaders learned key lessons Thursday that will help smooth out operations ahead of next month’s Christmas Super Feast. Organizers said the logistics of marshaling volunteers while following safety protocols to prevent the spread of the virus proved challenging in the runup to Thursday.

“Normally, we hug and we pat. And now we’re elbowing and waving,” Woodard said. “Those little personal touches have changed, but hopefully we’ll return soon to a sense of normalcy.”