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Thanksgiving dinner with Aunt Bertha: A quick way to find free holiday meals

Aunt-Bertha-ThanksgivingNo, Aunt Bertha will not pinch your cheeks. That’s because she is not actually a person. Aunt Bertha is a service, created by TED Fellow Erine Gray, that connects people in need of food, healthcare and housing with the wide variety of programs available in their area.

This week, Aunt Bertha is aiming to connect as many people as possible with a free and hearty Thanksgiving meal. To do so, Aunt Bertha created a database of more than 1,000 places in the United States that are serving free meals—complete with turkey—over the course of this week. At AuntBertha.com/Thanksgiving2014, you’ll find a searchable map of free meals available in your city, along with details about how to get more information.

Aunt Bertha has also cracked open the data to look at when the most free meals are taking place (hint: on November, 27 at 11am) and what kind of organizations are offering these meals (39% are offered by churches).

For Gray, creating this resource was important because he knows Thanksgiving can be a hard time for many people. “45.3 million Americans live below the poverty rate and at least 25 to 40 percent of us live paycheck to paycheck,” he explains. “Most of us take it for granted, but having the kids home from school can be an economic hardship because that’s more food to buy. If the parents work, there’s also more money going out for child care. And in much of the country, it gets cold — which drives up the normal utility costs and can dig into the food budget.”

Creating this map was a challenge. “We spend a lot of time digging through poorly structured data—it’s one of the things we’re good at,” he says. The difference with this project was that a lot of the information existed in calendars and bulletin boards, as opposed to on traditional web pages. “We were lucky to have a friend who joined us for a few weeks to help us get the project in order,” he says. “She is just a master of Googling.”

One part of the project that has Gray especially excited: everyone is invited to dig into the data and look for patterns. “I’m wondering: is there a relationship between Thanksgiving meals and per-capita income? Is it what we’d think?” asks Gray. “Is weather a factor?”

He hopes fellow “data geeks” will partake in analysis—and cranberry sauce.