For the first time in 50 years, Bill Foussard has canceled an annual Thanksgiving meal that the White Bear Lake business owner organizes that brought turkey, cranberries and other fixings to the doorsteps of thousands of Twin Cities families in need.

As Minnesota faces a record-breaking number of COVID-19 cases, Foussard said volunteers who work with him worried about the safety of hundreds of high school students gathering to dole out meals.

"It is sad, but you have to be realistic; COVID is touching everybody. The smart thing is to not do it," Foussard said, adding that he hopes food shelves fill the gap.

In the midst of the pandemic, holidays will look different for most Minnesotans — and so will charitable events to help a growing number of Minnesotans struggling to make ends meet.

Across the state, nonprofits are pre-bagging Christmas toys for families instead of offering in-person shopping and replacing free Thanksgiving meals with turkeys to go.

For the first time, Golden Valley nonprofit PRISM will be giving away 1,000 turkeys and boxes of side dishes in a drive-through set up in its parking lot Saturday, thanks to extra coronavirus aid from the city and donors. In Duluth, a Thanksgiving buffet held at the convention center each year has switched to meal kits delivered to people's homes.

And in Minneapolis, instead of closing on Thanksgiving, Loaves & Fishes is handing out to-go containers of turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberries for the first time at St. Stephen's Catholic Church. Executive Director Cathy Maes said she usually gives her staff and volunteers the holiday off, but this year she noticed that VFWs, churches and other organizations canceled Thanksgiving meals and decided to step in to fill the gaps.

"Doing this to-go model is not as easy as everyone thinks it is. We've been honing this since March," Maes said, adding that it's vital people still get a holiday meal in a year when little else is the same. "It's comforting for all of us. It's needed right now."

During the pandemic, food shelves across Minnesota have moved from allowing people to shop for groceries to handing out prepackaged boxes.

The changes come during a surge in need, with double or triple the number of people compared to pre-pandemic, many seeking help for the first time. (To find a food shelf, go to

"While we're giving thanks and fortunate to have food, there are too many people — kids and seniors especially — who just don't have enough to eat," said Michelle Ness, executive director of PRISM. "Hunger happens every single month of the year, not just the holidays."

Few food collections at workplaces

While PRISM is serving 1,300 households compared to 900 last year, the number of volunteers has decreased and corporations are giving fewer food donations since food drives aren't being held while employees work remotely.

The Salvation Army is also switching from hot meals to a turkey distribution. In Minnetonka, ICA Food Shelf is doing a drive-through pickup for turkeys and fixings. In Minneapolis, Open Arms of Minnesota, which delivers free meals to people with life-threatening illnesses, is swapping out hot turkey meals for frozen ones delivered early to increase flexibility, with a record nearly 2,000 meals this week.

And in St. Paul, Union Gospel Mission is handing out frozen turkeys and groceries in a drive-through before the holiday while scaling down a Thanksgiving Day buffet to enforce social distancing, adding plexiglass dividers and limiting the number of tables.

"The pandemic has definitely changed the way we approach it, but not changed the need," said Josh Windham, volunteer services manager at the nonprofit, which asked donors to give money instead of food this year to support buying groceries in bulk.

Fundraising to toy drives

The pandemic is changing other charitable holiday traditions, too.

On Saturday, hundreds of metro residents slept outside in their yards or in their living rooms to draw awareness and money for homelessness prevention programs instead of the usual massive "Sleep Out" event that Plymouth-based Interfaith Outreach & Community Partners holds each year. The nonprofit is hoping to raise $2.6 million by Dec. 31.

This month, the Walk to End Hunger on Thanksgiving Day moved to a virtual format for the first time in its 13 years, with participants walking alone to raise money for nine hunger relief organizations.

In December, the Salvation Army's Toy Shop will consolidate seven sites into one at its Roseville headquarters, with a drive-through, contactless toy pickup. Similarly, the Pine City Toys for Tots drive is pre-bagging toys to give families in a church parking lot instead of parents picking out toys.

Back in Golden Valley, PRISM is collecting toys from churches and other groups and will stagger shifts for families to pick up toys over several days for social distancing.

"I'm hopeful the community will continue to be generous," Ness said. "I see our work as being the keepers of hope, and this is a time … where we need all the hope we can get."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141