Free Parks Community Thanksgiving Dinner, a Des Moines tradition, returns after 2020 COVID cancellation

Elle Wignall
Des Moines Register

In August 2020, the hole left by the cancellation of the Iowa State Fair fresh in their minds, members of the Parks Community Thanksgiving Dinner committee convened in the driveway of Bob and Karla Iversen, hearts heavy.

With the COVID-19 pandemic an ongoing and unpredictable threat, they had an impossible decision to make: What would be the fate of the 2020 Parks Community Thanksgiving Dinner?

Rain, snow or shine, residents of Highland Park and Oak Park on Des Moines' north side could expect volunteers to convene at Chuck’s Italian American Restaurant every year to prepare and dish out a free holiday meal for all comers. Not once had it been canceled in 36 years.

The committee, led by the Iversens, weighed the obvious value of the event, which in 2019 provided nearly 3,700 holiday meals to Des Moines residents, against the potentially deadly consequences of crowding together around 80 volunteers — many elderly — into the close quarters of Chuck’s.

Volunteers fill styrofoam containers with warm turkey, ham, stuffing, potatoes, green beans and gravy to be served during the 2018 Parks Community Thanksgiving Dinner at Chuck's Restaurant in Des Moines. The free holiday meal has been served by the organization since 1984.

That risk was too high. Reluctantly, they voted to cancel the 2020 dinner, praying that it could make a comeback in 2021.

It's doing just that. The Parks Community Thanksgiving Dinner committee has announced that the free holiday meal will return to Chuck’s this Thanksgiving, albeit with a few precautionary changes:

  • Thanksgiving meals will be available via delivery and carry-out, without the usual dine-in service.
  • All volunteers and organizers will wear masks.  

Recalling the heaviness of the 2020 cancellation still brings tears to committee chair Karla Iversen’s eyes.

“You have so many friends that come in that you see year after year,” Iversen said, from diners to volunteers to community members who stop by with thoughtful donations like hand-knit scarves.

Dinner is a Highland Park tradition

What’s now a community tradition for thousands started as a dinner for around 100 people in 1984. Originally led by three Highland Park area churches, the meal moved to Chuck’s in 1992 when the pizza restaurant was under the ownership of Linda Bisignano. 

Bisignano’s beloved status in the community, where the restaurant her family founded has been a Sixth Avenue landmark for 65 years, helped the event grow. Even following her death a few weeks before Thanksgiving in 2013, the dinner went on as planned, the steady stream of donations and volunteers undiminished.

Becky Lehman, of Des Moines, pulls stuffing out of a warmer while she and other volunteers prepare free meals for the 2018 Parks Community Thanksgiving Dinner at Chuck's Restaurant in Des Moines.

That was thanks in large part to Bob Iversen, a volunteer since 1987, who at Bisignano's request stepped up as the dinner committee’s head chef and operations manager in 1993. Iversen is a restaurant industry veteran, and under his guidance, the production line became a well-oiled machine, expanding from serving 300 meals each Thanksgiving to an average of 3,500.

However, more than three decades of managing major Thanksgiving banquets has taken its toll on Iversen, now 68. In fact, in 2019, he announced he was stepping down from his position. But despite the post-holiday exhaustion to come and an utter disinterest in ever eating turkey again, Iversen will be at Chuck's on Nov. 25, helping put on the 2021 event.

“If I do quit, (Bisignano) will haunt me,” Iversen joked.

In reality, he hopes in coming years to be able to pass responsibility to current Chuck’s owner Emily Jones, who used the 2020 hiatus to complete a remodeling of the venerable restaurant, which just reopened for carry-out service.

1,400 pounds of turkey

This year, volunteers aim to serve 2,500 holiday meals to any Iowan who needs one. The endeavor costs around $14,000, but there is no need to show financial need to take home or receive delivery of one of the dinners. Many who order meals are elderly or housebound community members, immigrant families hoping to experience an American Thanksgiving and food-insecure households. In past years, some were just folks who wanted to meet people in the community.

Each meal includes turkey or ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, dressing, rolls and a slice of pie. In typical years, community members donate homemade pies, but out of an abundance of caution, the committee has asked for monetary donations in place of pies this year, and will purchase the desserts instead.

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With a focus on local products, the dinner requires around 850 pounds of ham, 1,400 pounds of turkey (cut by hand), 2,640 dinner rolls and more than 500 pounds of potatoes. About 160 industrial-sized cans of green beans, 49 gallons of gravy and 850 or so pies pass through the assembly line on Thanksgiving Day. Most years, a heap of cranberries brings a welcome pop of color to the meal, but the committee voted to nix them to ease packaging.

“We try to use the highest-quality products we can, and our kitchen people are extremely food safe because most of them have been around kitchens for a while,” Iversen said. “It’s a pretty crazy-looking operation when we’re in full tilt.”

Pies are plated and ready to be served during the free Parks Community Thanksgiving Dinner at Chuck's Restaurant on Nov. 22, 2018, in Des Moines.

Iversen attributes much of the success of the event to the volunteers, whose various tasks include scooping dressing, slicing pies, washing dishes and delivering meals. New volunteers arrive every year, but many have been at it for countless Thanksgivings.

Volunteer Melissa McGriff, 46, of Altoona, said Chuck's buzzes with the excitement of the day, and volunteers are quick to help each other out. McGriff has volunteered on and off since she was a teenager, and now it’s an experience she shares with her children.

“It’s an easy way to give back, and it’s fun meeting new people and doing something good for others,” McGriff said.

Food needs increase as holidays near

The Parks Community Thanksgiving Dinner may be one of the most visible manifestations, but it's just one part of a wider network of efforts seeking to fill what  Food Bank of Iowa President and CEO Michelle Book says is an increased need for food assistance from October through December every year.

“We are very busy working to procure all of the necessary additional pounds (of food) that we see in October, November and December,” Book said, citing an increase in large family gatherings, older children returning home from college for the holidays and pinched budgets due to holiday shopping.

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While the Food Bank of Iowa supplies food to 677 Iowa agencies — 170 in Polk County — Book said it generally does not supply turkeys due to the high wholesale cost and practical considerations.

“We have found that so many of the people using the food pantries may not know how to cook, may not know how to cook a turkey, may not have an oven, may not have a pan,” Book said, noting that it's one of the reasons a prepared dinner like the one at Chuck's is so valued. “There are many barriers to people producing a turkey dinner at home, so the turkey dinners that are produced in a congregate meal setting make much more sense.”

Volunteers fill containers with warm turkey, ham, stuffing, potatoes, green beans and gravy to be served during the 2018 Parks Community Thanksgiving Dinner at Chuck's Restaurant in Des Moines.

With the cost of food continuing to increase year over year, the Food Bank of Iowa expects food insecurity to continue climbing. In Polk County alone, around 40,000 people don’t have consistent access to enough food, Book said.

“I encourage people now more than ever: If you need help, please come to the food bank to get help,” Book said.

On the Food Bank of Iowa website’s homepage, the Get Help button helps users access available services based on their ZIP code.

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How to order free Thanksgiving dinner

To reserve Parks Community Thanksgiving Dinner meals, call (515) 875-5229.

How to help with the Parks dinner

Parks Community Thanksgiving Dinner Inc. is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, so community donations are tax deductible.

Cash or check donations can be mailed to:

The committee is seeking volunteers to help with food packaging and delivery on Thanksgiving Day. To volunteer, reach out to committee member Mickey Ryan at pctdvolunteer@gmail.com.

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Elle Wignall covers dining for the Register. Reach her at ewignall@registermedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @ElleWignallDMR.