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LYNN — United Way is teaming up with Lynn Housing Authority & Neighborhood Development to provide Thanksgiving meals to more than 1,000 families this weekend.
On Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Lynn Housing Authority & Neighborhood Development (LHAND) will distribute $50 Market Basket gift cards to 1,060 Lynn families, which they can use to purchase a turkey, mashed potatoes, vegetables and other items needed to serve a traditional Thanksgiving meal.
The gift cards, provided by United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, represent a departure from the organization’s Thanksgiving drive in past years.
For the past 21 years, United Way has partnered with local agencies, such as LHAND, to distribute shopping bags full of all of the fixings families would need to prepare a Thanksgiving meal, such as green beans, rice, stuffing, onions and potatoes.
In Lynn, recipients would also receive a $15 gift card to purchase a turkey at the grocery store, as the housing agency lacks refrigeration at its distribution site on Church Street, according Michelle D’Amico, LHAND’s program portfolio manager who oversees all United Way programs.
Deciding to switch to providing gift cards this year was “a hard decision to make, but was necessary,” said Dahlia Cox, vice president of engagement for United Way.
“We made that decision two weeks ago as COVID rates really started going up,” Cox said, explaining that it would have been unsafe for a large number of volunteers to spend this past week packing Thanksgiving grocery bags for 15,000 families across 23 communities.
In addition to Lynn, United Way’s Thanksgiving project drive will be held at 22 other distribution sites this weekend — Chelsea, Attleboro, North Attleboro, Milton, Lowell, Haverhill, Lawrence, Lynn, Quincy, South Boston, Randolph, Weymouth, Somerville, Malden, Medford, South End, Dorchester, along with Rochester and Newmarket in New Hampshire.
Cox said the communities selected for the drive this year are the cities and towns in their region that have been hit the hardest by COVID-19. Unemployment rates and the need for food in those communities is still rising, she said.
“With the ongoing crisis and unemployment rates as high as 30 percent in hard-hit cities, countless workers in our region remain underemployed with reduced hours and are struggling to make ends meet,” said Bob Giannino, president and chief executive officer at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley.
“Adding to the crisis, many local traditional Thanksgiving meal drives are not able to take place in person this year due to necessary health and safety COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines. We’re proud that so many businesses and individuals stepped up to help United Way serve 4,000 more families this year in even more communities.”
United Way representatives say this year is their largest drive yet, with 15,000 families receiving gift cards over those 23 communities. That represents more than 60,000 individuals that will be fed this Thanksgiving as a result of the drive, Cox said.
“More people were reaching out and unfortunately more people were reaching out than we were able to serve this year,” said Cox. “The need is tremendous. I wish we could serve everybody, but unfortunately, we hit our capacity at 15,000 this year.”
Of the communities United Way works with each year, Lynn is the fourth largest behind Attleboro, Dorchester and Quincy, which will distribute gift cards to 2,600, 2,500 and 1,200 families respectively this weekend.
The 1,060 slots that were set aside for Lynn families filled up faster than usual this year, according to D’Amico, who said LHAND had to close down sign-ups for the Thanksgiving drive after the first week.
“A lot of them said this is their first year receiving Thanksgiving meals,” said Miriam Martinez, financial coach at LHAND. “There was a lot of new people because of COVID. There’s clearly a need.”
All Lynn families of three or more people were invited to apply to the drive, and all those selected have been assigned a pick-up time on Saturday at LHAND’s site at 10 Church St., which is aimed at keeping the crowd to a minimum.
Unlike past years, distribution will take place outside, with people given the chance to drive or walk up to the site. In addition to the gift cards, each family will receive a roasting pan and empty shopping bag, D’Amico said.
“Every year we partner with United Way to deliver Thanksgiving outreach,” said D’Amico. “It’s going to look different than years past, but we’re still going to be able to help 1,000 families. We found the need is definitely tremendous this year because of COVID.”
The amount of families served through the drive at LHAND has increased every year, said D’Amico, noting that last year was the first time 1,000 families were served. Six hundred families were served the first year the drive was held in Lynn and LHAND could have helped more than 1,060 families this year if United Way could have afforded it, she said.
Despite the challenges brought on by the virus, both United Way and LHAND representatives said there was never any thought given to canceling this year’s Thanksgiving drive.
“I think we all recognize this is a very difficult year here in Lynn,” said D’Amico. “The United Way has funded the Lynn Community Care fund. We saw the overall COVID need in the city increase throughout the pandemic.
“We realized early on with our partners at United Way that this was a need we were committed to holding to this year. “We saw the need for the Salvation Army food lines. Clearly, there was going to be a huge void if we didn’t do it this year.”
LHAND executive director Charles Gaeta added he was grateful to United Way, not only for their Thanksgiving drive, but for all they do for the Lynn community. He thanked his staff for volunteering each year for the event.