For three days running this week, about a dozen students and volunteers will cram into the Salvation Army's small industrial kitchen in West Philadelphia to handle 2,653 pounds of precooked turkey, 1,855 pounds of instant mashed potatoes, 1,825 pounds of stuffing mix, 1,755 pounds of green beans, 1,200 cans of gravy, 1,200 cans of cranberry sauce, and 1,200 packages of rolls.

When they're done, they will have prepared nearly 4,000 Thanksgiving meals for 900 area families that otherwise would have to do without. On Thursday, those families will be able to pick up the ready-to-go meals, take them home, and pop them in the oven or a microwave.

The Salvation Army calls the effort "Thanksgiving to Go," and touts it as an improvement over the communal soup kitchen of old.

"It takes the stigma away from what we used to do," said Arlene "Wiggy" Olson, director of the Salvation Army's Soup's On! program, which trains people for jobs in the culinary field in its kitchen at 4050 Conshohocken Ave.

"This way, everyone just comes in and takes their meal and heats it up at home," she said.

Nancy Strong, 50, of North Philadelphia, a Soup's On! student, was one of the dozen people working in the crowded kitchen Monday.

"It's a learning experience," Strong said during a break. "I never had to prepare something for 4,000 people."

The effort takes a lot of work, she said, beginning with ordering the food, preparing meals, and making them ready for transportation. Since the job was to be done from Monday through Wednesday, it also meant coordinating three different 12-member crews of students and volunteers.

Others, including Elaine Gulezian of Plymouth Meeting, were there Monday because they wanted to volunteer. Gulezian was with a group of six from the American College of Financial Services in Bryn Mawr.

She was helping to pack turkey and stuffing in pans, then loading them on the trucks. Gulezian, a manager in the graduate studies department, said she feels it is important to help those in need before Thanksgiving.

"I think around the holidays, people feel need more acutely than other times of the year," she said.

All their efforts will culminate Thursday morning, when trucks will transport the meals to Salvation Army facilities in West Philadelphia, Kensington, and North Philadelphia, where families will be able to pick them up from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Earlier this year, vouchers were given to 3,813 people who demonstrated a certain degree of need, said Maj. A. Philip Ferreira, the director of operations for the Salvation Army of Greater Philadelphia.

"Each case is really determined by their specific need," Ferreira said.

Ferreira said nobody should leave the table hungry, because each of the meals includes leftovers. @JackTomczuk