Cy Higdon stood outside his South Side home clutching a bright-red, sealed bag filled with Thanksgiving dinner.
“It’s going to be the only thing I eat today,” he said.
Higdon is one of the thousands of Meals on Wheels San Antonio clients that received a free warm meal Thursday alongside thousands of other residents who received one from Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner volunteers.
The two entities deployed about 600 cars between them to ensure an estimated 12,000 disadvantaged residents could enjoy the tradition despite the coronavirus pandemic.
“We still want to provide a meal with a smile – behind a mask,” said Raul Jimenez III, the grandson of the late restaurateur Raul Jimenez who founded the dinner in 1979.
The Jimenez Dinner partnered with Meals on Wheels SA for its logistical expertise and set up assembly lines and meal pick-up at the docking area behind the Henry B. González Convention Center. About 250 vehicles entered the line that stretched down Montana Street and onto the highway access.
Typically, the event hosts nearly 25,000 people inside the exhibit hall and 4,500 volunteers contribute their time during the week. This year, the volunteer and feeding effort had to be scaled back to stem the spread of the virus, Jimenez said. A couple dozen volunteers worked the docks – filling trunks and back seats with sealed meal bags, popcorn, and handmade cards from elementary students – while a team of just 10 cooks finalized the to-go plates in the convention center’s kitchen.
“They’re the dream team,” Jimenez said, noting that they made about 450 plates an hour.
“We don’t see the people [we’re feeding], we don’t see the volunteers — which we miss,” said Stella Castillo, a sous chef for local catering company RK Group who has volunteered at the dinner for about 20 years and leads the kitchen staff. “But at least they’re still getting the food.”
On Wednesday, the kitchen prepared 6,000 cold meals that were distributed by 40 different nonprofits and partners, including homeless shelters, Jimenez said. On Thursday, individuals and nonprofits will deliver an estimated 4,500 hot meals with 350 vehicles.
“I think this will be one of the most meaningful Thanksgivings ever,” said Vinsen Faris, CEO of the local Meals on Wheels. He waved to volunteers passing by in a parking lot off Interstate 410 and Babcock Road where the nonprofit set up a separate distribution point. “[Volunteers] know that we are taking Thanksgiving to these people who can’t get out of their houses and letting them know that they are not forgotten.”
Most of Meals on Wheels SA’s clientele, seniors and people with disabilities, were already homebound before the pandemic, but the shut-down orders further isolated this population, Faris said. Meals on Wheels moved away from daily deliveries of hot meals to twice-weekly deliveries of three chilled meals at a time.
Thanksgiving was going to mark the restart of regular hot meal delivery, but the recent increase of local coronavirus cases means “we had to kick that back down the road,” he said. “This is the first hot meal that we have served since the middle of March.”
Esther and Joe Martinez were among 350 Meals on Wheels volunteer meal deliverers on Thursday who delivered an estimated 2,000 meals as a group. Typically, the Martinez’s spend Thanksgiving with 60 family members at Esther’s 92-year-old mother’s home in the Rio Grande Valley.
“She called everybody and said it’s not going to happen,” Esther said.
The couple has donated to Meals on Wheels for years and Joe volunteers at their church’s food bank. When the nonprofit sent out an email calling for volunteers, they signed up right away.
Hundreds of volunteer opportunities have been ceased during the pandemic and registration for Meals on Wheels and Jimenez Dinner filled up quickly.
“[Charity work is] in our blood. It’s something we like to do and give back to our community,” Esther Martinez said. “You get a good feeling when you do your service and you make people happy.”