About 10 years ago, my family became vegetarian. We started a home garden and renounced meat for a couple of years in a bid to get healthier and save money. We were struggling to live on one income, so cutting out meat opened up savings for other necessities. It worked -- we lost weight, got fitter and felt better. Our pocketbook got into better shape too.
When we were vegetarian, Thanksgiving was tough. I mean, who doesn't like turkey?
So I got creative in the dishes I prepared for the holiday. One year, I created a baked, vegetable-stuffed filo dough dish to share as our holiday main course. I shaped it to resemble a bird, something that, in retrospect, seems ironic and defeating the purpose of not eating meat.
No matter how you shape it, crust-wrapped vegetables shaped like turkey are a far cry from the real thing.
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Thanksgiving was, in fact, the holiday that turned my family back into carnivores.
After two years munching tofu burgers and soy hot dogs, we'd had enough. We went to Grandma's house for some real holiday food.
As was tradition in our family, during the meal we each in turn professed what we were thankful for that year. Family. Good food. Friends. Toys. All the basics made the list.
Until it came turn for Child No. 4, who was 4 years old at the time, to tell us what he appreciated most in life.
"I'm thankful for the meat!" he said.
We all laughed, but you know, we were all thankful for the meat that year.
These days our kids have other things they claim to be thankful for. Each year, that big beautiful bird arrives on the table, baked to a golden brown, ready to eat. They don't question how it got there. They gobble it up just the same. Hey, when it comes time to feast, I don't question how the food gets there either. I just eat.
But inevitably, conversation will come around to the year that No. 4 said he was thankful for the meat.
And I can't help but reflect on how truly thankful we should be for that one simple staple that most of us have. Because putting a turkey on the table is not that simple for many families.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2008 almost one in four families in Merced County lived in poverty. Poverty isn't new in Merced, but it is compounded by high unemployment rates and the drop in real estate values.
Numerous charities and churches scramble this time of year to fill the need in the community to feed families who might not know where their next meal will come from, let alone their holiday turkey. As more families struggle to feed their own, charities also struggle with lower donations to feed those in need.
And just because Thanksgiving has come and gone, doesn't mean the need is gone.
Phyllis Legg with the Merced County Food Bank says that what's needed most after the Thanksgiving holiday are turkeys that will be given out to families in time for Christmas. The Food Bank is also looking for donations of canned goods and cereals.
The Food Bank distributes emergency food boxes to more than 60 sites throughout Merced County. For many families, these boxes will put food on their table that might not otherwise be there.
Legg said donations can be dropped off at the Food Bank at 2000 W. Olive Ave. in Merced between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m., Monday through Friday. Monetary donations can be made through the website at mercedcountyfoodbank.org.
This year, I'm thankful for the meat. Are you? If so, consider donating a turkey to the Food Bank and making another family thankful for meat this year, too.
Heidi Britt is a grant writer and co-founder of Parent Resource Association of Merced (PRAM). Six kids and counting call her variations of the word Mom.