A cup of soup is given. Photo by Scott Ball.
A cup of hot vegetable soup is given to a community member from the Chow Train.

Local attorney and chef Joan Cheever and her small team of volunteers served about 40 three-course meals to homeless and poverty-stricken people Tuesday night at Maverick Park. She started off with an appetizer of farmer’s market vegetable soup and smoked trout, a main course of chicken curry and two salads, and topped it off with watermelon for dessert. Cheever said it takes her a full day and a half to prep and cook the meal.

She rolls up to the park in her pickup truck every Tuesday to feed those in need. She’s been doing it for about eight years and she’s not stopping now, despite the citation and cease and desist order she was issued April 7 from the San Antonio Police Department. The citation, which could carry a fine of up to $2,000, was issued because the permit issued for her food truck does not extend to the truck she uses to distribute the meals.

Cheever told the police it’s her religious freedom to feed the homeless, and her story has garnered attention from people around the city and the country. Her citation has also become a topic of debate in the mayoral race.

Joan Cheever prepares soup for donation. Photo by Scott Ball.
Joan Cheever (left) prepares soup as part of a free meal in Maverick Park. Photo by Scott Ball.

But for the community members scoring a decadent, filling meal like this one, it’s not about politics. It simply eases the struggles – namely hunger – of being homeless, said one man attending the feast.

The Chow Train Menu. Photo by Joan Cheever.
The Chow Train Menu. Photo by Joan Cheever.

For this particular meal, Wilson Elementary School donated potatoes from their school garden, Trader Joe’s donated the trout, and vegetables for the soup came from farmers from the Olmos Basin Farmers Market.

“I think (the citation) offends people’s sense of justice and freedom and religious freedom. You are taught at an early age to take care of your neighbor and be a good Samaritan and help those in need,” she said.

Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert Jr. (Precinct 4) said a citation like Cheever’s would not have been issued under the leadership of Mayor Julián Castro and the criminalization of compassion should never happen in San Antonio. Calvert spoke last week at an endorsement event for mayoral candidate and former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte.

“Joan Cheever and good people of faith should not be penalized unfairly. We are San Antonio, where neighbor helps neighbor, in hunger, in health and to keep each other safe,” Van de Putte said Tuesday.

The former state senator is in a tight race for the June 13 runoff election, challenging Mayor Ivy Taylor for the position. Early voting has already begun and continues through June 9.

Taylor said the City needs to look again at the rules pertaining to feeding the homeless.

The crowd around the chow train. Photo by Scott Ball.
A crowd gathers around Joan Cheever and her volunteers. Photo by Scott Ball.

“We also need to revisit Haven for Hope and determine whether or not it’s been a success. … Being that we’re still having these types of challenges, I think we need to look at that model and take a comprehensive look at how we’re addressing (homelessness and hunger),” Taylor said last week.

Some say “handouts” like Cheever’s incentivize homelessness, others say people have the right to offer charity. Cheever said the City of San Antonio wants the homeless to receive aid from the homeless shelter, Haven For Hope instead of her weekly post at Maverick Park.

Chicken curry with potatoes donated by Wilson Elementary and mixed greens is served as a main course. Photo by Scott Ball.
Chicken curry with potatoes donated by Wilson Elementary and mixed greens is served as a main course. Photo by Scott Ball.

“I don’t know what the problem is with the City,” she said. “They think ‘out of sight out of mind,’ that we’ll hide the homeless from the church or hide the homeless from other people in San Antonio.”

But, Cheever said, Haven For Hope doesn’t offer services for the working poor. Just the homeless.

“I have people who are off work, wanting to get home, grab the bus, and come by for food to go so that they can eat it on the bus on the way home,” she said. “And I don’t go and ask people in the line, ‘Are you homeless, are you working poor, or what exactly is your story?’ I don’t care if they are a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, an atheist. All I care about is that they are hungry.”

Brian Lane has come to Maverick Park for the past eight months to receive food from Cheever. He’s been living in and out of motels for the past two years, resorting to the streets when he’s out of money.

“(Cheever’s) a real good lady,” he said. “It’s a good nutritious meal, it’s like gourmet food. It’s the best meal that I’ve seen anywhere, right here.”

Brian Lane stares into the distance while waiting for food. Photo by Scott Ball.
Brian Lane looks off into Maverick Park while waiting for food. Photo by Scott Ball.

Lane said he doesn’t go to Haven for Hope for shelter or handouts.

“They’ve got too many drugs down there,” he said. “There aren’t too many of us who do go down there.”

On that Tuesday evening in April, Cheever was performing her weekly ritual of handing out food to those in need. She prepares the food in her commercial grade food truck, the Chow Train, packs the food in Health Department approved catering equipment, drives with the food to Maverick Park in her pickup truck, and disperses the food to the poor and homeless.

When she arrived to the park, she saw the usual bicycle cops she sees every Tuesday, but this time the four cops weren’t their usual friendly selves.

“I always see them every Tuesday and we wave and sometimes they come over and we chat about the menu,” Cheever said. “(On April 7) they looked pretty glum and I said, ‘Is there a problem?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, the problem is you.’”

Nathan Smith waits for the arrival of dinner. Photo by Scott Ball.
Nathan Smith waits for Joan Cheever’s free dinner in Maverick Park. Photo by Scott Ball.

One police officer told Cheever she was breaking the law because she was serving food from her pickup truck instead of from the Chow Train. Cheever told the officer he was infringing upon her religious freedom, and even tried to hand him a printed copy of both the Texas and national Religious Freedom Restoration Act. He refused both.

Cheever recalled the officer saying, “Lady if you want to pray, go to Church.”

“I said, ‘Officer this is how I pray. I pray while I cook, I pray while I serve, and this is my prayer,’” Cheever said.

So, Cheever bantered with the police for some time to ensure that the 45 people at Maverick Park that night didn’t go home hungry.

“(The officer) said I was lucky that they weren’t stopping me and I thanked him for that,” Cheever said, who has vowed to fight the citation.

Cheever said she started the Chow Truck to teach her children about compassion.

“I’m not a criminal,” she said.

*Featured/top image: A volunteer passes out free cups of soup in Maverick Park. Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Former Rivard Report Assistant Editor Joan Vinson is a San Antonio native who graduated from The University of Texas with a bachelor's degree in journalism. She's a yoga fanatic and an adventurer at heart....