Mobile Turkey Unit still delivering Thanksgiving

— Created November 11, 2020 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

Mobile Turkey Unit has been delivering Thanksgiving meals to Central and South Whidbey Island residents for more than 20 years now, and its board of directors was not about to let a global pandemic stand in its way this year, either.

“The meals are going to look exactly the same for our community members, but how we accomplish it is going to be very different,” noted Gwendine Norton, co-president of Mobile Turkey Unit of Whidbey Island. “Honestly, if what we’ve always done is ‘Plan A,’ we’re probably on ‘Plan E’ now. We’re having to basically reinvent how to do every step.”

One big change this year is in taking orders. The organization needs people to sign up earlier than usual to receive meals – by Nov. 19, to be specific. Those interested can sign up online at or by calling Norton at 360-321-9782.

“We would really like to have all the orders by the Thursday prior to Thanksgiving,” she explained. “This year, just because of the logistics and planning, we need to have a really close idea of what we need because everything is different. We want people to know this is available for them, but we also want to know as closely as possible what we need in order to accomplish it.”

Because MTU has been doing this for a long time, Norton said the event typically runs like a well-oiled machine. Over the course of three days more than 175 volunteers help to cook, package and deliver hundreds of meals. But, as we all know, 2020 has been anything but typical. Still, board members decided back in June they would do their best to continue this holiday tradition for the community.

“We had our annual meeting in February and planned our budget, but we all agreed in June we were going to move forward, no matter what happened, and we’re going to blow the budget,” Norton said. “It has impacted us. We’ve had to buy Infrared thermometers, disposable masks and we had to rent a 26-foot refrigerated truck, because while COVID safety is a priority, food safety has always been our number one priority.”

Norton was quick to point out MTU has received assistance from several organizations to help offset the extra costs.

“We just got a lovely grant from Whidbey Community Foundation that we requested to pay for the truck,” she said. “Goosefoot has been very kind to us, Heritage Bank gave us a sponsorship, Whidbey Telcom has given us a philanthropy grant, and private donors have helped with some of the equipment we’ve needed. So we’re okay.

“From the time MTU started until 22 years later, the mission has stayed the same,” Norton continued. “We’ve all worked hard at trying to establish a good reputation for Mobile Turkey Unit. It’s humbling to see so many of our community organizations supporting us so well.”

This year, work to prepare the anticipated 700 meals (up from 580 last year) will begin a day earlier than normal. Instead of using one kitchen to do the cooking, organizers are using two kitchens – at St. Hubert Catholic Church and Langley United Methodist Church – and rotating out small groups of volunteers to comply with all health and safety protocols.

And instead of dozens of volunteers gathering together Thanksgiving morning to pack up the meals, MTU board members, who have been isolating in preparation for this event, will pack the meals themselves and distribute them among volunteer drivers at Trinity Lutheran Church.

“I’m struggling with not seeing everyone this year,” Norton admitted. “Thanksgiving morning is usually doing the serving line, the packing line  – there are videos on the web that show how many people are  there. That’s not happening, so we’re all struggling with that. It’s just going to be a handful of us and it just doesn’t feel the same. But we know we’re getting the food out. That part’s the most important. But Mobile Turkey Unit has become more than that. It’s all of us gathering as a community to help our fellow community members.”

No Community Harvest
But, while MTU is gearing up to serve more meals than ever, a mainstay of Thanksgiving for thousands of people on North Whidbey will not be happening.

The North Whidbey Community Harvest has been canceled.

“We were trying to see if there was any way of doing something, but with restrictions constantly changing and because we couldn’t have a kitchen staff of strangers running back and forth, we decided in the interests of everyone’s safety not to put it on this year,” said Skip Pohtilla, president of North Whidbey Community Harvest.

“Even with setting up a serving line, there would still have a problem in the kitchen,” Pohtilla continued. “We also have volunteers who work out back, doing the deep fryers and the smoking, and there could still be contact with people you don’t know. So in the interest of safety, we decided as a board we shouldn’t do it.”

According to Pohtilla, the group served approximately 2,200 meals and delivered more than 950 last year.  He also noted that while the event is usually held at the Elks Lodge in Oak Harbor, it is not an Elks event.

“Please do not call the Elks Lodge about this,” he said. “The Elks have provided the venue for the last 19 years, but it’s not their event. North Whidbey Community Harvest is a separate nonprofit organization. Please don’t get upset with the Elks – they have nothing to do with the decision not to have it.”

Pohtilla said the group hopes to be back next year.

“We hope to be back again next year for Thanksgiving, assuming things settle down,” he said. “Right now, we have to take it a month at a time. We won’t know until September of next year. The plan is to come back in 2021 and hold this event. We’re just sick we can’t this year.”

Coupeville Community Potluck
Organizers of the Coupeville Community Thanksgiving Potluck have announced this event has been cancelled as well, posting this announcement on Facebook last week:

“Sadly there will be no community potluck this year due to COVID-19. We will be back in 2021 to celebrate and give thanks for our community. Stay safe and well.”

Mobile Turkey Unit
Serving Central and South Whidbey
Sign up early!
Register by Thursday, Nov. 19 to get a Thanksgiving meal
By phone: 360-321-9782
Meals will be delivered Thanksgiving Day between approximately 9 a.m. -1 p.m.