Most of the time, the showroom at Fort Dodge Ford Lincoln Toyota is filled with shiny new cars and trucks waiting for their new owners. But for one day a year, that showroom becomes a family room for Deb and Casey Johnson and their incredibly large extended family — all 2,500 of them.
The annual Fort Dodge Ford community Thanksgiving dinner was served Thursday after Iowa Central Community College culinary arts students spent the last week preparing for the ginormous meal. Like every year, dozens of volunteers stepped up to help set up for the dinner, serve beverages, clean up and deliver meals to homebound residents.
The day starts in the kitchens at Iowa Central’s Hanson Center, where the culinary students man the ovens and stoves, cooking pans, and pans and pans of Thanksgiving turkey and fixings. Next to the kitchen, volunteers from campus and the community set up an assembly line filling to-go boxes for the 1,014 homebound residents who requested a meal to be delivered by the 16 delivery teams.
“We had two packaging lines in the kitchen, so it went really quick,” said Barb Michaels, finance administrator at Fort Dodge Ford and organizer of the dealership’s Thanksgiving dinner. “We never ask for volunteers — they just show up.”
The Fort Dodge Ford dinner has been a community tradition for well over a decade now, and each year it runs even smoother than the year before, said Nancy Lombard, who also works in the dealership office and organizes the event with Michaels.
“Each year it gets better because … we try to tweak it to make the process easier, quicker, less chaotic,” Lombard said.
But doesn’t coordinating the delivery of more than 1,000 meals to homebound residents sound chaotic anyway?
“We have a list of good drivers that we contact every year,” Lombard said. “It’s really nice when we get the same people; things just click.”
Michaels and Lombard begin taking calls on Nov. 1 from residents requesting the delivery, Lombard said.
Julie Piton and her family were two of the delivery teams on Thursday.
“I think it’s a good experience and it’s great for the kids,” she said. “We actually had the privilege today to take meals out to the TSA workers at the airport. As much as we complain about hanging out with family, we’re really blessed to be able to do so.”
Piton’s 8-year-old daughter, Emmy, was excited to volunteer to deliver meals.
“I like helping people, because not all people get to come out of their homes to get their own food,” she said.
The Pitons also delivered meals to First Baptist Church’s SALT Center, where people in need in the downtown area can go for warmth and support.
“I think it just speaks volumes about our sense of community and the kindness of the people of Fort Dodge and how willing they are to help those in need,” Michaels said of the volunteers who help each year.
“There’s more positive things in Fort Dodge, if people choose to find them, as opposed to all the other things that are bad that happen that everyone seems to focus on,” Lombard added.
The 14 culinary students spent about a week preparing for Thursday’s dinner, said Chef Michael Hirst, director of the culinary program. The students did everything from butchering the 70 turkeys to peeling 425 pounds of Yukon gold potatoes, to slicing 250 pounds of Brussels sprouts, to roasting the turkey bones to make broth for dressing and gravy.
“They whipped up about six quarts of cream this morning for the pies,” Hirst added.
A native of England, Hirst doesn’t have the deep connection to Thanksgiving that most Americans do, but enjoys his role in this holiday tradition.
“It’s a lot of fun that so many people give up their time and come and help out,” he said. “It brings people together, and at a time when there’s a lot of people who are sort of backstabbing each other and being crappy to each other. It’s kind of fun that people pull together for this.”
Across town, at the dealership, rows and rows of tables filled the showroom floor.
“It was overwhelming and probably the largest ever,” owner Casey Johnson said.
In addition to the 1,014 meals that were delivered, there were about 1,300 to-go meals picked up by community members who came into the showroom but didn’t stay to eat there. Overall, between the meals that were taken to-go and the meals that were eaten at the dealership, Johnson estimates close to 2,500 people stopped in on Thursday.
Several years ago, the Johnsons’ holiday dinner sparked the resurgence of another program for homebound residents.
“Meals on Wheels came out of this,” Michaels said. “As we started doing all these deliveries, we had a discussion about the number of homebound people that had to be in Fort Dodge that we had no services for. And that’s what made Deb and Casey then start the Meals on Wheels program.”
In 2017, Deb Johnson was the secretary of the Fort Dodge Community Foundation and United Way Board and after learning that the Meals on Wheels program was just barely limping along after its longtime facilitator, North Central Home Care, closed in late 2013. Webster County Public Health was able to take on some of the Meals on Wheels duties, but it didn’t have the resources to really help the program thrive.
The Community Foundation/United Way and Fort Dodge Ford were able to breathe new life into the Meals on Wheels program and now many residents in the area receive regular meals.
“We do 50 to 55 meals a day, Monday through Friday, 52 weeks a year,” Casey Johnson. “So tomorrow, we’ll be delivering Meals on Wheels with a special Thanksgiving treat in it.”
FD Ford Thanksgiving Dinner By the numbers
300 pounds of ham
425 pounds of Yukon gold potatoes
250 pounds of sweet potatoes
250 pounds of fresh cranberries
225 pounds of green beans
250 pounds of Brussels sprouts
56 quarts of heavy cream for pie topping
1,014 meals delivered
2,500 meals served at the showroom