Six-year-old Jaliyaah Tharp had a big smile on her face, showing off a festive painting on her cheek of a snowman standing on top of a rainbow. She had just finished writing a letter to Santa, asking for a baby doll and slime.
Tharp, who was with her three brothers and mother, was one of hundreds of children who attended H-E-B’s 30th annual and first in-person Feast of Sharing dinner after the COVID-19 pandemic. The grand return of the annual dinner comes after a cancellation in 2020 and a 2021 drive-through distribution at the AT&T Center.
H-E-B hosts 34 such dinners across Texas and Mexico, and San Antonio’s feast is one of its biggest events.
“I love this H-E-B thing, and it’s so fun,” Tharp said with a big smile, holding onto a Froot Loop necklace she made. “It’s so many things I like: painting, making a necklace.”
After the face-painting, Tharp said she was heading to take photos with Santa next.
Families with children lined up at each activity booth at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, eager to get their hands on arts and crafts.
On the other side of the convention center, couples and friends danced to live music from Mariachi Las Alteñas, and JoAnna Contreras, who sings Selena covers and the Luis Portillo orchestra, the mainstay of the San Antonio dinner.
Dividing the area where visitors enjoyed dancing and dinner and the kids zone, 30 organizations offered various services. Representatives from CAST Schools and the San Antonio Food Bank informed potential applicants about their programs, H-E-B Careers staffers explained their open positions, and the Lions Clubs International offered free eye screenings.
More than 2,000 volunteers helped serve a barbecue dinner made up of at least 3,500 pounds of brisket, 6,750 sausage links, beans and hundreds of apple pies.
The menu was different than the traditional turkey and ham dinners of previous years, leaning into Texas roots instead, said Julie Bedingfield, public affairs manager for H-E-B.
H-E-B was prepared to serve 10,000 people at the dinner, she said.
Some of the attendees arrived by VIA, which offered free rides to and from the event, including Raquel Rivera, who was eating dinner with her two sisters and three children.
Rivera last attended a Feast of Sharing dinner before the COVID-19 pandemic happened, she said, and was feeling grateful for the event’s return because it gave her children activities to do.
“I’m going to take my kids to go enjoy the activities they have in the back. I know they had Santa back there, so I wanted to get them pictures with Santa,” said Rivera, who lives on the Southwest Side. “Being able to enjoy this with my kids, spending time outside the house. … I don’t get to do that very often.”
Bedingfield said that the meal was for everyone in the community.
An H-E-B employee volunteer at the event, Lacey Kotzur, said she was doing her part to spread holiday cheer.
“This is actually my 16th year volunteering at the H-E-B Feast of Sharing. It has become a tradition for me and my family,” she said.
Like in prior years, Kotzur’s three children, ages 11, 9 and 5, helped her serve meals to the community on Thursday.
“It’s been a really hard past few years for a lot of people, and this particular event is really just about bringing the community together and celebrating, no matter the background or where you come from,” Kotzur said. “That’s what I appreciate, honor and enjoy the most, especially this close to Christmas.”
H-E-B is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.