The Year Pasadena's Cherished Thanksgiving Dinner in the Park Tradition Almost Didn't Happen

State food preparation regulations enforced in 2013 stunned locals who loved to donate homemade food, but protecting the vulnerable was paramount

Published : Thursday, November 22, 2018 | 6:51 AM

For 47 years, Union Station Homeless Services’ Thanksgiving Dinner in the Park has been an important part of Pasadena’s community of caring and for many, a special part of the holiday itself.

A small army of volunteers traditionally serves up hope and hot Thanksgiving dinners in Central Park to thousands of homeless men, women, children, seniors, very low-income families, and those with no place to go during the holidays.

But in 2013, the traditional Thanksgiving Dinner in the Park almost didn’t happen. And it hasn’t been quite the same, ever since.

That was the year a review by the Pasadena Public Health Department discovered — to the shock and dismay of many — that the decades-old tradition of dropping off home-cooked food by generous local residents violated the California Retail Food Code, which regulates how foods are produced for public consumption.

A beloved tradition and source for a large percentage of the needed food preparation was suddenly prohibited.

Liza Frias, the City’s new Environmental Health Division Manager at the time, ruled the nonprofit would no longer be able to accept home-cooked food from community members, as that violated the California Retail Food Code, which regulates how foods are produced for public consumption.

Since the event is held at a public park, city officials were quick to point out that the city was at risk if someone eating at the event fell ill and sued for damages.

Frias said at the time that the code requires that any food that is made available to the public must come from an approved and regulated facility. She said she discovered the violation as she was reviewing different practices in the city and added there was no way of knowing if home-cooked foods had been properly prepared and transported.

Union Station Homeless Services officials at the time said they were surprised by the “ban” on donated home-cooked meals, saying that home-prepared turkey and other food items brought by community members had been an integral part of the event from its beginnings.

Community members from all walks were upset over the ban. Many local families had built-in a holiday trip to the Dinner in the Park to deliver food to the needy as part of their Thanksgiving family tradition and were saddened they could do so no longer.

Following the ban, Union Station Homeless Services announced that it could no longer accept home-cooked items on the day of the event.

Then-Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard reluctantly agreed, saying the cherished city tradition required compliance and enforcement despite disappointment.

Looking back this week, Pasadena’s Public Health Director Michael Johnson and Rachel Janbek, the City’s current Environmental Health Division Manager Wednesday explained that Frias made the correct decision and how Union Station and the Health Dept. have become “partners” to protect the homeless.

“A mild illness could become a major illness for individuals that are already challenged,” Johnson said, “so making sure that the food is provided is a safe and healthy and in compliance with the state laws is extra important.”

Janbek said the chef at Union Station is familiar with current food preparation regulations and has managed food for this event for several years.

“He’s done such a great job in the past,” she said, “I’m confident that he’ll continue to carry that forward.”

Union Station Homeless Services has adjusted. The nonprofit stopped accepting donated home-cooked food following the health department’s order, and community members have since been encouraged to donate items from Union Station’s grocery wishlist including green beans, mushroom soup, cranberry sauce, corn cans, instant mashed potatoes, turkey or chicken gravy, Italian salad dressings, and bottled water.

Today, the Thanksgiving Dinner in the Park tradition continues.

Apart from the items listed above, store-bought pies are also welcome and can be dropped off at Central Park on Thanksgiving morning (drop off area is on the southern parking strip of Fair Oaks just north of Del Mar Blvd.).

This year’s Thanksgiving Dinner in the Park will be on November 22 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Central Park, corner of Del Mar Boulevard and Fair Oaks Avenue.

blog comments powered by Disqus