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

Published on Thursday, November 24, 2022 | 6:05 am
 

A pre-pandemic ‘Dinner in the Park’ in 2018, served en masse to as many as 5,000 people throughout the day. [James Macpherson/Pasadena Now]
For 51 years, Thanksgiving Dinner in the Park has been an important part of the Pasadena’s community of caring.

A small army of local volunteers directed by hosting nonprofit Union Station Homeless Services served up hope and hot Thanksgiving dinners to thousands of homeless men, women, children, seniors, very low-income families, and those with no place to go during the holidays.

Because of the pandemic, that tradition has morphed into three food distributions each in a different format. In the end, the spirit of sharing and bringing joy to those in need has staunchly prevailed.

But in 2013, the traditional Thanksgiving Dinner in the Park—in any format— almost didn’t happen after a shocking, last-minute development threatened to kill the beloved event.

That was the year a review by the Pasadena Public Health Department discovered — to the 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, days before thousands would arrive, hungry and in need.

Liza Frias, then the city’s environmental health division manager, said the nonprofit would no longer be able to accept home-cooked food from community members, as it 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 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 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 and required compliance and enforcement despite disappointments.

“I am (also) disappointed because I treasure the generosity of the people of Pasadena and I am strongly supportive of every opportunity to contribute to the needs that exist,” he said.

“I’m hoping that they will be understanding, as disappointing as it is to all of us, that this is what the law requires. The city’s failure to act on that once it’s fully appreciated at City Hall would not only be the subject of intense criticism from the public, should anyone turn out to be made ill by the dinner tomorrow, but it would extend liability to the city for its failure to act conveying the requirements of the law. If the law really is clear and strict, the city has no choice but to comply,” Bogaard said.

In a statement in Nov., 2013,, Union Station Homeless Services also said the ban removed the very integral part of the event, which is people giving from their hearts and from their kitchens to feed people who are hungry and homeless.

Pasadena Public Health Department supporters said that only is that agency required to uphold the law, but the ban on donated home-cooked meals for the Thanksgiving Day dinner was a “social justice” issue. They felt that the poor and homeless should be given the same level of health protection as the more affluent members of the community.

“We believe that everyone deserves the same quality of public health protection and that’s one of the reasons why we are pretty strong in support of this. It is the California Retail Food Code that makes this requirement,” said then-Director Dr. Eric Walsh.

Dr. Walsh added that the home-cooked foods were only a small portion of the meal that is mostly made by the certified Union Station kitchen staff.

Walsh also explained that although no one had reported being sick from the event, the homeless population is a vulnerable population.

“Many of them won’t have health care. They’re also often a lot less likely to report things. You don’t want to put them in an environment where there might be more chance of food-borne illnesses,”Walsh said.

Union Station Homeless Services quickly readjusted.

They 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.

At the last minute through the same kind of inventiveness Union Station showed during the pandemic, the Dinner in the Park survived.

Today, the Thanksgiving Dinner in the Park tradition continues, in different formats wrought by COVID-19.

On Monday, meal boxes were distributed to those in need who have the means to cook and prepare the meals.

On Wednesday, fully prepared Thanksgiving meals were distributed.

And on Thanksgiving Day, Union Station is hosting small, private sit-down dinners for the 550 residents living at interim housing locations including the Adult Center, Family Center, Centennial Place, Huntington Villas, Casa Luna, the Eagle Rock Tiny Village, and the M Motel in El Monte.

Union Station CEO Anne Miskey said Union Station served over 4,000 people at 2021’s Thanksgiving and expects to serve more this year, especially with the rising food costs.

Union Station relies upon “rely on the generosity of our community” is still in need of donations to make all their plans happen. 

Aside from donations, Miskey also said Union Station needs more volunteers to make the events possible. 

“We couldn’t do it without volunteers. This is a huge endeavor where we are one of the largest Thanksgiving dinners in Los Angeles County. So with thousands of meals and boxes, we need as many volunteers as we can get.”

“There’s a whole variety of jobs up to and including the actual days that we’re serving food. So volunteers really are the lifeblood of our organization for ‘Dinner in the Park.’” 

Updated Thursday, November 24, 2022 | Originally published Wednesday, November 22, 2017 

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