Pasadena Tradition Feeds Thousands on Thursday, Dinner in the Park Sees Larger Turnout

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5:51 am | November 24, 2017

Some 500 volunteers helped nonprofit Union Station Homeless Services prepare and serve about 2,000 meals – including turkey, stuffing, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie – to the hungry and lonely at Pasadena’s Central Park on Thursday for the traditional Thanksgiving Dinner At The Park.

The feeding of the poor and the homeless at the park is a Pasadena holiday tradition that sees no signs of slowing down despite a 2013 order from the Pasadena Health Department that enforced the California Retail Food Code and banned community members from donating home-cooked food to the event.

“The support of the community is just amazing. I know for up to four years ago, it was a large community potluck. Back in 1995, the L.A. Times called it ‘the largest potluck in the nation.’ But it is now largely run through donations but the community support is still amazing. Coming in with donations of turkeys and hams,”  said Union Station Development and Communications Associate Mario Galeano. “The support from corporations and businesses in Pasadena and San Gabriel Valley has just been great and has been able to offer services to people here in Pasadena.”

Among the donations for the event were 200 turkeys from Pasadena-based Trader Joe’s stores in San Gabriel Valley and San Fernando Valley.

“Our stores in the area were more than happy to partner with Union Station Homeless Services this year, to help provide thousands with a Thanksgiving meal. Giving back in the communities where we serve is a priority for us,” said Trader Joe’s spokesperson Kenya Friend-Daniel.

The donation from Trader Joe’s, which gave more than $341 million worth of product to U.S. food banks last year, through its daily giving program, will cover the majority of the turkeys needed for the dinner.

“We are incredibly grateful to Trader Joe’s for this donation and joining us in the fight to rebuild lives and end homelessness in the San Gabriel Valley,” said Union Station’s Director of Special Programs, Stephanie Harris.

The actual cooking of the birds was donated by the Pasadena Convention Center and its Centerplate food service operation.

“We applaud Union Station’s work to serve thousands of meals to those less fortunate during the holiday season and are pleased to participate in such a giving cause,” said Michael Ross, CEO, Pasadena Center Operating Company.

In fact, this year Union  Station predicted an increase in the needy and prepared more food.

“We see more and more families struggling with just day-to-day expenses,” one official said, adding they plan to serve “a larger demographic of low-income individuals and families, as well as senior citizens, and any individuals, really, that find themselves lonely for the holidays.”

“You just never know how many people are going to come,” said Union Station Homeless Services CEO John Brauer. “Knowing that the homeless count has been up throughout the San Gabriel Valley and throughout L.A., we want to be prepared.”

Last year, the dinner served approximately 1,800 individuals, Union Station Homeless Services said.

A traditional turkey dinner was served to meal recipients that include individuals and families experiencing homelessness or poverty, senior citizens, and those who were alone for Thanksgiving or unable to afford a holiday meal.

John Brauer, Union Station Homeless Services CEO thanked the hundreds of volunteers who pitched in to make this year’s Thanksgiving event possible.

“We are proud to be part of this event. This event has been going on now for 47 years, 45 of which, Union Station has been around. Before that. it was All Saints Church to help us get this going. Because of them, there is a Union Station, so, we thank you all for coming. Without the 500 plus volunteers who have come plus the folks who have donated food, this would have never happened,” he said.

Brauer earlier said  the community’s support remains great even if it means Union Station is now required to accept store bought items instead of home-cooked meals.

“I think it was shocking in the beginning because so many people had made this part of their Thanksgiving tradition of actually preparing the turkey and making the side dishes,” said Brauer.

“This community is amazing — they were very resilient. The bottom line was the community is still behind making sure people get a meal even though I think, things may be a little disappointment in the beginning, but again people rallied and they’re happy to provide goods instead,” added Brauer.

Union Station Homeless Services operates nine major programs throughout the San Gabriel Valley and provides a full continuum of care to help the homeless community members become stable and self-sufficient.

“It just reminds me of how great humanity is and we all get together and put something like this. You can’t help but feel like there’s hope in the world,” said Brauer.

For his part, Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek told volunteers before the start of the Thanksgiving dinner that the event is evidence of Pasadena’s tradition of “people wanting to help their neighbours.”

“Pasadena has a tradition of people wanting to help their neighbours and I think that is what this event is about,” Mayor Tornek said to the crowd. “We also have a tradition of relying on people’s good will and on nonprofits like Union Station to really help us take care of our neighbors that need some assistance. So on behalf of the City of Pasadena and three of my colleagues who are on the serving line, we welcome you today, we are grateful to have you here today, and we hope you enjoy your Thanksgiving!

The event proved emotional for some who lined up for the free Thanksgiving meal.

“For me this (meal) exemplifies Thanksgiving. You are here not just with your immediate family but with all the people. And whether or not some of these people are homeless, or just don’t have any family, this is a good thing. I have been at both ends of it,” said a man who wants to be identified as “Mario”.

“What Thanksgiving means to me is that I got a lot to be thankful for in addition to having a meal. There was a time in my life when I did not have a home and I was in a shelter and then I got a home. I got very, very blessed. So I don’t forget that ever,” he added.