Emily Sawicki

Tired Thanksgiving clichés about arguing with in-laws or watching football seemed to melt away at Santa Monica College’s annual GIVING THANKS(giving) event on Tuesday morning, revealing perhaps a more old-fashioned take on the most American of holidays: a renewed focus on community, joy and thankfulness.

SMC Foundation President and Dean of Institutional Advancement Lizzie Moore, PhD, said Tuesday’s Thanksgiving giveaway was about much more than a single meal. The event included Krispy Kreme donuts and chocolate chip cookies, upbeat music, SMC cheerleaders and a reflection on thankfulness, complete with postcards students were encouraged to mail offering thanks to loved ones. 

“This is a way of just creating an event that has a lot of dignity and happiness around something that is typically stigmatized, and creating that intentional point of view of happiness — because this challenge of food insecurity, particularly for community college students? It’s not their fault,” Moore said. Moore pointed out that government meal programs exist to feed students from elementary through high school, but that additional support falls away after high school ends.

“And so, you know, waiting in line for food or waiting in a queue for food can be very stressful, and the idea is that we remove all that stress — we make it happy and they have a blast. So it feels dignified,” Moore said.

With food insecurity continuing to be a major issue on community college campuses nationwide, SMC and the SMC Foundation have been stepping up efforts to support its student body.

Among SMC’s roughly 30,000 students, an estimated 59% are considered food insecure, according to Moore. Some SMC students in a recent survey said they would sometimes go up to two days without eating a single meal.

In the face of this massive challenge, Moore and her team at SMC began weekly food giveaways on campus during the third week of March 2020, just days after COVID-19 shutdowns began. That evolved into Bodega, a weekly free grocery/general store on the College’s Pico campus open to all SMC students. But how to tackle a major food holiday like Thanksgiving?

Prior to COVID, Moore and some colleagues and family members had begun a casual word-of-mouth program inviting homeless students, students in need and international students to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal at her home, but that transformed into the first GIVING THANKS(giving) event in time for November 2020. That continued to evolve into the current event.

On Tuesday morning, a dozen volunteers bopped along to dance tracks spun by a KCRW DJ while car after car of SMC students pulled up to accept whole turkeys, bread rolls, salt, pepper, butter, yams, onions, carrots, celery, garlic, potatoes, cranberries and beans, and generous family-sized pumpkin pies at this year’s all-day GIVING THANKS(giving) event. Vegetarian students received plant proteins and kosher students received kosher turkeys, to make a total of 1,100 boxes handed out. 

Each meal kit also featured a festive bottle of sparkling Martinelli’s apple juice and was designed to feed up to six, meaning the one-day giveaway provided up to 6,600 hot Thanksgiving dinners.

Moore estimated the total cost for this year’s free grocery giveaway was more than $120,000. That funding came from the SMC Foundation, including private donors, in addition to many generous businesses and corporations. Gelson’s provided onions, potatoes, carrots and Martinelli’s; Jacmar Foodservice Distribution donated all-day use of a large refrigerated truck and free pickup and delivery of bulk food items; Costco supported the program by permitting massive bulk food orders; and local grocery store Vicente Foods in Brentwood has long supported the SMC food programs and helped out with this year’s GIVING THANKS(giving) drive.

Volunteers spent all day Monday packing up meal kits into bags that also included the Thanksgiving postcards and recipe information to cook classic Thanksgiving fare with the ingredients provided. Then, many would return again once more on Wednesday.

One day after the grocery giveaway, SMC was continuing the spirit of Thanksgiving with a hot food distribution for SMC students that do not have homes or access to kitchens to enjoy a cooked Thanksgiving meal. Moore estimated about 300 hot meals would be given out at Wednesday’s event.

The team of volunteers, more than 100 strong over the three-day program, included current students at the College, SMC employees past and present, KCRW employees, community members, and even some of Moore’s own family.

“Our goal in doing this is really to just provide some extra love — some SMC love —  for our students over the holiday season and let them know that we care — that SMC cares — about them,” Moore said. “And that we know times are tough right now, and we hope that this SMC love makes a difference in their lives.”