Linda Raby was first in line as cars stretched around the River Center Thursday morning, filled with families waiting to pick up a Thanksgiving meal courtesy of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Thursday marked the second time the lifelong Baton Rouge resident lined up for the annual holiday meal giveaway. She arrived more than an hour early to make sure she snagged a good spot in the winding drive-through line.
"It was delicious, that's why I'm back," Raby said with a laugh. "The food is always really good."
The 156-year-old Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a nonprofit service organization, has long provided struggling Baton Rouge families with home-cooked Thanksgiving meals — a need that became all the more acute, as well as more complicated, with the pandemic.
With an increasing number of households throughout the country facing economic hardship, organizer Michael Acado said the society prepared to serve more people than ever this Thanksgiving between its two locations at the River Center and the organization's headquarters on St. Vincent de Paul Drive.
In total, he said more than 2,000 meals — made with 168 turkeys donated by the congregation of B'nai Israel — were prepped and handed out by roughly 100 volunteers Thursday.
For the organization, this was the second year of following strict COVID safety measures.
"When you do things year after year, you get things down to a science, and then all of a sudden, a worldwide pandemic hits and it's like, 'Oh, we've got to change everything,'" he said. "You have to think strategically, from a different perspective."
To save the much-anticipated event from cancelation last year, the organization set up a drive-through so families could safely pick up their meals without having to leave their vehicles.
Acado said the response was overwhelming.
"There was a line from the River Center all the way to the Interstate," he said. "It was very eye-opening."
This year, in an attempt at some normalcy, the organization decided to partially re-open its dining area. However, the center's normally full event hall was had just a fraction of its usual number of tables — just enough seating for roughly 100 diners.
In a typical year, the space can be packed with up to 500 people.
Johnnie Wilson and her mother Annie Thomas were among a handful of people who decided to enjoy their meal in-person.
Like Raby, Wilson said she and her mother also made a point of arriving early because the wait is worth it.
"The food's better," she said.
Above all, Acado said his organization was happy to give diners a safe Thanksgiving.
"Our guests, safety of our small staff, that's all paramount in everything that we do," he said. "We've been playing it as safe as we can, and thus far we've been very fortunate that the protocols we put in place last year worked exceptionally well."
From the car line, Raby praised the organization's efforts.
"It's a great thing they do," she said. "And it's a great gift to the community."