Feeding San Antonio’s Hungriest and Homeless

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The holiday season moves people unlike any other time of the year, with many opening their hearts and purse strings to help the less fortunate.

NoKidHungry reports that 16 million children in the United States – that's one in five – live in food-insecure homes where a nutritious meal each day is no certain thing.

The millions of food insecure families don't muster much political power. Congress recently cut $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps. That and previous cuts add up to a reduction of about three billion meals in 2014.

SNAP makes an easy target. Recipient abuse is not uncommon – people can spend money on nutritionally deficient foods in places like convenience stores. I recently was approached in the H-E-B Eastside checkout line by a women who offered $40 in stamps for $20 cash. But petty fraud seems like a poor rationale for a nation to reduce its programs to feed the hungry. Half of all food stamp recipients are children, so the cuts punish the innocent and helpless.

San Antonians by the thousands come together each Thanksgiving and Christmas to feed the homeless and those who cannot afford a holiday feast.

Sandra McBride and Family at the Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner

Volunteer Sandra McBride with her husband, daughter, and granddaughters at the Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner. From left: Brandi Schimonsky, Leon Mathis, Sandra McBride, Kaylee Schimonsky, Tina Schimonsky.

If you are new to the city or simply looking for a family-friendly community service opportunity, remember next year to sign up for one of these two grand events that help make San Antonio a special and unique city.

Today is the 34th Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner, when nearly 25,000 senior citizens and others will come to the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center for a good meal and community fellowship, served by an army of volunteers. It isn't easy to serve a really good meal to the masses, but it happens here. And there is much more than food.

[Read More: "The Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner, a Community Tradition."]

The City of San Antonio donates all facilities and many city workers volunteer. Local musicians play for free. Starbuck's donates the coffee. Time-Warner Cable makes it possible for attendees anyone to calls loved ones anywhere in the United States and Mexico. Local companies and organizations help underwrite the event, the same names that often appear on the list of generous donors: Valero Energy, The RK Group,  CPS Energy, Tesoro Energy, United Way, City Tours, and others.

Papa Jimenez. Courtesy photo.

Courtesy / Jimenez Family

Papa Jimenez. Courtesy photo.

Jimenez, a larger-than-life man I count myself fortunate to have known, died in 1998. His daughter, Patricia Jimenez, wears the mantle now and is fond of reciting her father’s trademark motto, “Dad was always saying, ‘We come into this world with nothing, we leave with nothing. What counts is what we do in between. I believe in caring and sharing.' This is a custom we plan to continue."

If the local Thanksgiving Feast began as one family's determination to give back, the feast that follows is rooted in the philanthropic DNA of San Antonio-based H-E-B, which since its founding has donated five per cent of its pretax profits to community and charitable endeavors here and throughout the state.

The H-E-B Feast of Sharing will take place on Saturday, Dec. 21, from 11 a.m.-4 p.m., also at the Convention Center. It's a kid-friendly gathering, with crafts and activities and an opportunity to visit with Santa Claus after stomachs are filled.

What really makes the Feast of Sharing so special is that it is a moveable feast, unfolding over two months in 23 different Texas cities and communities. It started Nov. 1 this year in Midland and concludes on Christmas Eve in Corpus Christi, H-E-B's former corporate home.

There are many other ways this season of giving to share your good fortune and help feed the hungry.

One of the most inspirational, if often invisible, operations in our city is the San Antonio Food Bank, which year-around feeds thousands of food insecure families throughout Southwest Texas. The Food Bank takes both food and monetary donations. Here is a list of most needed items. While researching this story, I clicked on the Food Bank's Holiday Box with Fox Channel 29 campaign – and with one click donated $25, enough to provide one family with a nutritious holiday meal. Small gifts can make a big difference.

If you would rather give your time than food or money, sign up to work as a volunteer at the Food Bank warehouse. I once worked an overnight shift with a small army of high school students. It's an amazing, large-scale operation. Next time I'm going to sign up for a little outdoor work in the community garden where fresh produce is grown.

Boys and Girls Club of San Antonio members volunteering at the San Antonio Food Bank. Photo courtesy of Boys and Girls Club of San Antonio.

Boys and Girls Club of San Antonio members volunteering at the San Antonio Food Bank. Photo courtesy of Boys and Girls Club of San Antonio.

The Haven for Hope remains the nation's most ambitious treatment and full-care facility for the homeless. There are 3,000 homeless people in San Antonio on any given day, and about 1,200 of them are not in overnight shelters. The population includes many families with young children and, by the way, many military veterans. You can donate money, clothing or your time.

Feeding the homeless on the streets has been the subject of contention in U.S. cities, and in recent years most major cities have passed ordinances to ban feeding the homeless in outdoor settings. Public health officials in San Antonio and elsewhere believe outdoor soup kitchens contribute to homeless loitering and street squatting in lieu of using shelter and assistance programs like the Haven for Hope or SAMMinistries.

San Antonio Symphony musicians prepare for their holiday performance at Haven for Hope in December 2012. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

San Antonio Symphony musicians prepare for their holiday performance at Haven for Hope in December 2012. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Uncertified food kitchens are also a health concern, but many people oppose the restrictions on moral grounds, and it's not uncommon downtown to see individuals arriving with carloads of supplies and delivering food and meals or clothing to groups of homeless people. No one is going to arrest you for a random act of kindness.

San Antonio's best known outdoor feeding program was operated for years by Church Under the Bridge under the U.S. 281 highway overpass near Broadway and the Pearl. When the Haven for Hope opened, the city tightened its quality of life ordinances and shut down the program.

"Were not feeding outside anymore," Pastor Dennis Cawthon said. "We built a building at  724 Chestnut, and we've been in it for two years this week. The city's actions ended up putting pressure on us to do it faster. Now we feed about 200 people there Tuesday, Thursday and Sundays at 6 p.m."

The near-Eastside building is part church sanctuary, part cafeteria and commercial kitchen. A medical clinic operates there on Tuesday nights, and a dental clinic will open soon.

"We're a church, we have church services," Cawthon said. "We give out clothes. If you know any donors, we take clothes and we take money, and food -- if it is new and properly packaged."

A Boerne-based ministry, "Take it to the Streets," sets up on the church parking lot on Friday nights and feeds people at 7 p.m.

"We offered them our building, but they wanted to be on the street," Cawthon said. "They feel like they get more participation out there. I know of one other guy still feeding on the streets. His name is Brian and he's been feeding at 9th and N. Alamo Streets. Guy's a loner, been out there doing it for years."

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