LIMA — Twelve months ago the food was plentiful but the fellowship was in shorter supply than usual.
This year both were abundant as the traditional free Thanksgiving dinner returned to downtown Lima in mostly full force.
In the grip of a nationwide health pandemic last year at this time, the dinner was mostly a drive-through affair. Limited indoor seating was available. While the COVID-19 pandemic still lingers, indoor seating was in a socially-distanced setting again this year, but the familiar sense of community was once again present.
The free community dinner has been a tradition for more than 30 years in Lima. Started by the Chester Cary family in 1989, the annual dinner was overseen for 13 years by Jerry Lewis, owner of several McDonald’s restaurants throughout the region, until Lima Community Church assumed the leadership role for the dinner four years ago.
Jonathan Burkey is the director of the 2021 Lima Community Church Thanksgiving Dinner.
“Last year we served about 2,300 to 2,500 dinners,” Burkey said. “We’re hoping to serve at least 3,000 this year. And a lot more folks are able to dine inside this year. It’s a much more familial feeling. Our hope is to foster community and not just give people free food.”
Lima resident Norm Rath was one of the beneficiaries of the dinner on Thursday. He’s been coming annually for a dozen years or so.
“It’s good food, but it’s also really pleasant company — even when you’re alone. The people here are just so friendly. It’s reassuring,” Rath said.
Burkey said approximately 250 volunteers and dozens of corporate sponsors make the annual meal possible. Some volunteers worked Wednesday setting up for the event, others were present Thursday to lend a helping hand.
Cars were already lined up around two or more blocks outside the Civic Center on Thursday morning, waiting their turn in a drive-thru lane to pick up a free holiday dinner. Inside the center, hundreds of residents were coming and going, many leaving with plastic bags containing hygiene products and laundry detergent, courtesy of Procter & Gamble, or cases of soft drinks furnished by Coca-Cola.
Michael Harvey of Lima sat inside the center as his dinner settled. A bag of P&G products sat in front of him.
“I’ve been coming every year for about eight years,” he said. “The food is good and the people are friendly. And the free items are nice. It all helps.”
Burkey praised the Lima business community that continues to lend its support to the annual event.
“It’s just awesome,” he said.