What $50 or $20,000 can do this Thanksgiving

And so another Thanksgiving approaches, the day officially set aside for the taking of personal inventory, and for expressions of gratitude for another year of life, for a steady income, for a place to live, for decent health (maybe even health insurance), for good food, clean water, heating and air conditioning, gas and electricity, cable and WiFi, and perhaps even happiness.

Also, be sure to give thanks if you haven't had to call 211 this year.


If you never once had to dial those three digits, then you probably are employed or have a steady retirement income; you can probably afford a house or apartment, too. If you never had to call United Way of Central Maryland's 24-7 help center, then you've probably managed to avoid suicidal thoughts, or at least be treated for trauma and depression through your health plan. If you never dialed 211, you likely have a good safety net of relatives and friends to help you through the prolonged and stressful aftermath of the Great Recession. You probably have enough income to pay your BGE bill. You've managed to keep food on the table every week of the year.

And not calling 211 means you likely have $50 to buy the fixings for a big Thanksgiving meal a week from today.


That's about what the average holiday meal for 10 will cost this year, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. Five dollars a person doesn't sound like much and, compared to the rest of the world, we still spend a relatively small part of our household budgets on food. But food prices are up significantly from last year and, with 49 million Americans officially in poverty and many more just off poverty's shore, you won't be surprised to hear about what's been happening at United Way's 211 call center in Baltimore.

Since Nov. 1, the social workers who answer the phones have logged twice the usual number of daily calls. "We've averaged more than 700 calls a day, most of them for food," says Saundra Bond, who supervises the operation in an office building on Lombard Street. More than 1,700 calls came in one day, more than 1,400 another, the majority of them requesting help with a Thanksgiving meal. (People must have proof of eligibility for public assistance or be unemployed to get help.)

For 19 years, a United Way program called Harvest of Plenty has been helping low-income families with a holiday meal.

For most of those years, Harvest of Plenty provided 600 Thanksgiving meals.

Last year, there were enough funds to supply 1,800 families with sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, green beans, macaroni and cheese, pie filling and crust, stuffing, corn muffin mix and either a large chicken or coupons for poultry products.

This year, United Way, with an assist from a Johns Hopkins food drive, was able to provide 2,500 families all that, plus many of them with healthier fixings — chopped kale, applesauce, whole kernel corn — and a 14-pound turkey instead of the chicken or coupons.

But those meals were all spoken for by Nov. 8.

And still people are calling, by the hundreds, every day, Ms. Bond says. By last Friday, there had been 3,500 calls for meals. By Tuesday night, requests for Harvest of Plenty boxes totaled 8,284.


Of course, United Way is looking for donations to pay for additional boxes of groceries and turkeys in the next week. Its employees can do wonders with $10; that amount, they say, helps buy one full meal for a family of six.

Which gets me to that $20,000 the Ravens' Ray Lewis has to pay to the National Football League for a prohibited helmet-to-helmet hit on the Steelers' Hines Ward in Baltimore's sweet win at Pittsburgh. The website of NFL Charities says fines for on-field infractions go into funds and programs for retired players. Total fines have averaged $3 million each of the last four seasons.

I know the NFL and its players, including several Ravens, already do a lot through United Way, and taking care of retirees is important, too. But, given the circumstances and the timing, that $20,000 from Ray would provide Thanksgiving meals for 2,000 needy families. Or maybe the NFL could give the United Way half of the $40,000 that Steelers safety Ryan Clark had to pay for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Baltimore tight end Ed Dickson in the same game. Yes, that's an even better idea.

Just sayin'.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His email is The website for donations to the United Way is