Glide Church turns San Francisco street into block-long dining room for Thanksgiving

Feeding the needy looked different this Thanksgiving Day. 

The pandemic forced changes and some downturns for charitable organizations.

But their commitment remained unshakable.

"There was no question we were going to serve Thanksgiving, it was just how we were going to do it," said Jean Cooper, strategy officer for Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco.

On Wednesday evening, Ellis Street in front of the church was closed to traffic so that crews could erect three large tents.

The street was turned into a block-long dining room for the holiday dinner.

"There's a canopy over the top with all the sides open to promote ventilation and we will have a lot of airflow," said Cooper.

Gone are the days that turkey and trimmings could be ladled up communally and people could sit elbow to elbow to enjoy the meal in the dining hall.

Instead, each hot dinner was packed in a container and the guest were able to take it with them or sit outside, with restrictions. 

"Each table is going to be utilized by one household so if one person makes up the household or six people make up the household, they will be seated at one table," said Cooper.

Precautions were also taken as each table was vacated.  

"Once each group is done we'll come through and do a deep cleaning, sanitizing the table and chairs so it will be ready for the next household to enjoy their meal."

Many safety-net organizations had to adjust plans due to COVID19.

"Everything is different this year," said David Shatto of the Salvation Army. 

Shatto and wife Diane are based in San Rafael and oversee Salvation Army activities in Marin County.

They note, the pandemic has not been kind to their annual bell-ringing campaign.    

"We lost half of our sites because there were stores that just couldn't take the risk of COVID," said Diane.

Fortunately, the red kettles that are in place are receiving strong support, and virtual giving is up.

Earlier this week, the Salvation Army helped with a turkey giveaway in Mill Valley and Marin City.

On the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving, they will assist in giving Christmas toys to children, but skip the food in favor of supermarket gift cards.

"This year we're giving out gift cards but last year we were able to box-up food for all 300 families who came," said Diane.

The difference: reluctance to bring volunteers together on large projects.

"We used to get volunteers from the whole community but this year it's just too risky to get strangers together in one place."

Added David, "We're serving fewer families but the need is greater so we're going to be evaluating things through the holiday season."

Glide, in response to the pandemic, slashed its Thanksgiving volunteer ranks.

On previous holidays as many as 500 volunteers might participate; this time there were 150 and they received special safety training and PPE.

Even with infection numbers surging, canceling dinner was never considered.

"Never even a thought in our mind," said Cooper, "because Glide has been here for 60 years, open and ready to serve the people who need us the most."

Throughout the holiday season, much of the giving has been touchless, donations picked up curbside, through car windows, grab and go style.

It amounts to best practices, but it's not as personal, which is why Glide persisted with a Thanksgiving event under one roof, even if it has no walls.

"We are about community and providing a place where people can feel some connection, particularly now when we're so isolated from each other," said Cooper.

The feast was held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.,with an estimated 2,500 people served over the four-hour span.

It was much shorter than in past years, speeding the pace so that people weren't spending excessive time in line with each other.

Best of all, there was no rain in the forecast to soak the temporary tents.

"It will be great, it's going to be sunny!" said Cooper.

Debora Villalon is a reporter for KTVU.  Email Debora at and follow her on Twitter@DeboraKTVU