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What if there was no turkey? No cranberries, no sweet potatoes. No green bean casserole and pumpkin pie. What would Thanksgiving be?
On a day- in a season- of abundant celebration, Melissa F., of Owego, knows too well what it’s like to go without. This year, as in years past, Melissa got her turkey and holiday groceries at the Tioga County Rural Ministry turkey give-away earlier this month.
The Food Bank’s Virtual Turkey Drive helps families participate in the Thanksgiving food traditions that are so much a part of the holiday season. For eight years, Tioga Downs Casino has matched donations in the drive to ensure Southern Tier families can receive a holiday meal from their local food pantries and agencies.
This year, our community has raised $75,000 to provide thousands of turkeys and holiday meals to families in the Southern Tier. The need in our six-county region is great. One in seven adults, and one in four children, are at risk of hunger. The turkey drive continues this year through Thanksgiving Day.
At the turkey give away this month, Melissa made her way through the food pantry sparingly, taking only what she needed and nothing that she already had at home. She left the pantry with four paper sacks holding her monthly groceries, as well as her small package of turkey cuts and a few of the traditional trimmings. The turkey seems smaller than usual, Melissa says. But then, her grown children have left home and she says she doesn’t need much.
“It’s okay that it’s small. At least I can cook it with the dishes I have. It’s not as if I have a big basting pan,” she says. “I’ve been living like this so long, it’s normal. I almost think the whole big turkey thing is overblown … Maybe it’s just because I’ve done without for so long. But I know it brings people joy. I had a taste of it for a minute, when I was a child.”
Melissa remembers waking up on Thanksgiving mornings in her grandparents’ farmhouse, which her family shared. She remembers the aroma from the kitchen, as the smell of bacon, eggs and hot cocoa gave way to turkey and grandma’s stuffing.
By the time everyone sat down to breakfast, the men would be half-done with slaughtering pigs for winter. “We canned in the fall and butchered in the winter,” Melissa says. It was easier for your family to provide all the food you needed back then on the farm, she says.
Life’s circumstances put an end to bountiful Thanksgiving dinners for Melissa and her family when she was a young teenager. She has been through a lot of trauma in her 38 years. “I wish I could go back to back to being a kid. That was so much easier and more innocent.”
Melissa is thankful for a day off to spend time with her fiancé J.R. and his children. Her grown children are out of the house now and Melissa says she doesn’t need much for her small family. Melissa and J.R. earn just enough to disqualify them for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the program that used to be called “food stamps.”
J.R. works for their landlord doing construction and maintenance work, and he washes dishes at a restaurant. Melissa feels fortunate her landlord is lenient on rent when they come up short.
Melissa babysits her neighbor’s children four days a week for $60, so her neighbor can go to work. “I see my neighbors going through it worse than me,” she says. “We were hoping to do better this year, but bills needed to be paid.”
Earned income goes mostly to maintaining utility services. Not much is left over for food, which is why the local food pantry is so critical for Melissa. She has relied on the ministry to make ends meet for years. Now that her children are grown, things are a bit easier. But not much.
Melissa regularly attends the Food Bank’s Just Say Yes classes on nutrition and budget cooking. She is a graduate of the Food Bank’s Speakers Bureau, a nine-week program that teaches public speaking and empowerment skills to people with lived experience of food insecurity. She has overcome a lot of fears and feelings of inferiority in order to speak on her own behalf and for others living with food insecurity. Melissa says the program has helped her take pride in herself and “stand a little taller.”
Knowing how the Food Bank works with partner agencies, donors and volunteers also helps her take pride in herself. She has seen, first-hand now, how so many people come together to provide resources for people in need because they feel food security is a right for everyone.
“I am always thankful that somebody out there cares,” she says. “It’s an amazing feeling. It’s overwhelming sometimes.”
You can give the gift of a Thanksgiving turkey and holiday meal with a donaiton to the Virtual Turkey Drive. Thanks to the generous support of Tioga Downs Casino, your gift will make twice the impact.
Tioga Downs will generously match all donations, up to $20,000, to help the Food Bank purchase turkeys to be distributed to neighbors in need across the Southern Tier.
During a time that we come together and celebrate our annual traditions, one single act of kindness can help a family in need find a little joy and be able to have their own Thanksgiving tradition.
The 8th Annual Virtual Turkey Drive is once again sponsored by Tioga Downs Casino!
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