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Community Thanksgiving Buffet draws hundreds in Cloquet, thousands in Duluth

Volunteers Craig Ryan (above left) and Jon Ketola keep a close eye on huge pots of gravy keeping warm for Cloquet's sixth annual Thanksgiving Buffet last Thursday. Jana Peterson/Pine Journal1 / 2
Mike Leavitt of Esko (left) organizes coffee and desserts in preparation for his volunteer stint as a buffet line server Thursday at Zion Lutheran Church in Cloquet. Jana Peterson/Pine Journal2 / 2

Cloquet's sixth annual Community Thanksgiving Buffet came together, once again, thanks to the efforts of many different organizations across the Northland. First among them are the volunteers at The College of St. Scholastica which organizes free community meals in both Duluth and Cloquet and who cooked a total of 1,800 pounds of turkey. More volunteers in Duluth and Cloquet cooked, mashed and otherwise blended a total of 2,000 pounds of potatoes and 400 pounds of sweet potatoes grown by local


Between 650 and 700 people ate their Thanksgiving dinner at Cloquet's Zion Lutheran Church Thursday, while volunteers in Duluth served some 5,000 plates of food at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, including 1,200 home-delivered meals.

That's a lot of food.

An hour before show time in Cloquet, Craig Ryan and Jon Ketola of Cloquet were in the kitchen at the church, keeping an eye on two massive pots of gravy while dozens of other volunteers waited for the 11 a.m. start. In all, 125 volunteers worked on the Cloquet event.

"It went very well," said Jill Hatfield, executive director of Volunteer Services of Carlton County, explaining the local event began six years ago when St. Scholastica noticed a lot of people from Cloquet and Carlton County were traveling to the DECC for the college's annual free Thanksgiving dinner.

Hatfield said every year is different.

"We see a mix of homeless people, needy people, others who are elderly and/or alone," Hatfield said. "We also get people who come because they want to be a part of the community and visit with others."

A core group of local organizations including Volunteer Services, University of Minnesota Extension Services and Cloquet Senior Dining coordinate the Carlton County efforts with St. Scholastica.

This year's buffet was in honor of Lawrence "Larry" Sorenson, founder of Upper Lakes Foods distributors, which donates the turkey for the event. He died in 2005, but Upper Lakes Foods continues to be a major supporter.

Sorenson "was an early donor, which gave the buffet its momentum," said Jack Teske of St. Scholastica's Food Service. "Without Upper Lakes Foods' support, I'm not sure it would have had the momentum to survive."

Hatfield said the Thanksgiving buffet is very popular with volunteers, who often call to sign up as early as September even though they have to attend training the day before as well as volunteer on Thanksgiving Day itself.

"We usually end up with a waiting list," she said. "People really like to do this."