Janice Scott works hard at KFC and stretches her budget to care for her 12-year-old son and her 1-year-old godson, whom she adopted this month.
So she was grateful to be in a church basement in Essex on Tuesday, accepting a 14-pound turkey and a box full of ingredients for side dishes. The free Thanksgiving meal will help Scott feed about 10 people at her house for the holiday.
"It makes a difference," Scott said.
Scott said it's the first time she's received help like this. Her family has had a rough year, with several deaths of loved ones, and they'll be glad to gather on Thanksgiving.
"Give praise and thank God we are able to live another day," she said.
The United Way of Central Maryland, which distributed 140 turkey dinners at St. Stephen's African Methodist Episcopal Church, is hearing from more people like Scott — people reaching out for assistance for the first time.
This year, Thanksgiving food requests from low-income families increased 25 percent over 2012, said Lindsley Stys, a spokeswoman for the United Way. The organization is distributing 3,600 food boxes in the Baltimore area this week, an increase from last year's 3,000. Distributions have been held in the city as well as in Baltimore, Harford, Anne Arundel, Howard and Carroll counties.
Each box includes a turkey, macaroni and cheese, canned green beans, instant mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, corn muffin mix, brownie mix and more. It feeds a family of six.
The 600 additional meals were paid for by Baltimore Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb and Molly Shattuck, the United Way's healthy food ambassador, a former Ravens cheerleader and wife of former Constellation Energy CEO Mayo A. Shattuck III.
And while the United Way appreciates the donations from Webb and Shattuck, Stys said, the Thanksgiving meal program is also made possible by countless generous Marylanders.
"It's nice when you can do something for not a huge cost — $15 or $20 — that makes a difference," she said, noting that donations are still needed to cover a significant gap that remains to pay for the program.
Michele Riehl of Essex is among many recipients who were seeking help after their food stamp benefits were cut.
Recipients of food stamps — the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program — saw benefits cut Nov. 1 when a recession-related boost in spending ended. Congress is considering further cuts to the program. Nearly 48 million Americans receive food stamps, including 796,000 Marylanders.
Riehl has a 16-year-old son living with her and a 20-year-old daughter who will visit for Thanksgiving. She said her food stamps have been cut by $40 per month, which presents a hardship with a growing boy in the house. With Thanksgiving dinner taken care of, Riehl can stretch her food stamps further.
"I've been extra careful at the store," she said.
Riehl helped her aunt, Mary Wright, pick up her dinner at St. Stephen's as well. Wright, a retired warehouse equipment operator, plans to host about 10 people at her home in Essex on Thursday.
"It helps a lot, foodwise," Wright said. The money freed up by not having to buy the holiday dinner will go toward bills, she said.
Zelda Green said she'll relax and watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade while her grandchildren cook the Thanksgiving dinner she received. A retired substitute teacher, Green said she's raised six children and 26 grandchildren. There are currently five in her home, ages 1 to 17.
"It will be wonderful," Green said. "Whatever they give me, I'll make do with what's there. It's good and it's free."
The basement at St. Stephen's was abuzz with activity, as some church volunteers cooked a hot lunch while others handed out boxes to those who signed up with the United Way.
St. Stephen's serves hot meals for seniors and others in need Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The church also operates a food pantry and is in the midst of hosting a rotating winter shelter for homeless men. Volunteers will cook a holiday dinner for them Thursday.
Church member Sarah Albritton greeted the meal box recipients and checked them off the United Way's list. She said it's important to help those in need in the community; so much so that she takes vacation from her job as a nurse to coordinate the United Way meal distribution.
"I feel like I'm giving back," she said. "I'm blessed, so I'm passing it on."