Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Jerry Reed looked festive in his Santa Claus apron with blinking red lights and a tall, floppy hat as he briefed dozens of Blue Team food service volunteers minutes before the doors opened at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center late Saturday morning.
In a matter of minutes the 25th annual H-E-B Feast of Sharing would begin. A growing crowd pushed against a long wall of doors in the convention center’s cavernous Hall 3, eager to leave behind the South Texas winter chill for the warmth and comfort of this annual Christmas season community gathering.
Empty chairs and tables covered with tablecloths, color-coded blue, red, white, and green to help floor manager and servers, stretched out for what seemed like acres. All would fill in a seeming instant.
“The people we serve today are our guests, and we welcome them,” Reed said with exuberance, addressing his comments to first-time volunteers who crowded around him in a circle. “For many, this might be the only hot, nutritious meal they eat this holiday season. They are not supposed to take food home with them, but if some do, well, we are not going to tell a hungry person in need there is a rule against that.”
Reed and his wife of 35 years, Fawn, who live in Cibolo, were working their 14th Feast of Sharing. Like many in the volunteer corps, Reed was visibly animated by the experience. He spoke fondly of past events and the different roles he has played as a volunteer leader.
I was on Reed’s team, eager to start my own holiday with a few hours of community service and San Antonio-style goodwill. Standing near me, Angela Dooms, an advertising executive with Spectrum Reach, stood with her two children, Mateo Gonzalez, an eighth-grader at Bradley Middle School, and Abby Gonzalez, a 10th grader at Churchill High School, both in the North East Independent School District, preparing to volunteer for the first time.
“I was in this year’s class of the Northside Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Lab, and that’s where I learned about this opportunity,” Dooms said. “My parents taught me the value of volunteering, and I am just passing it to my children.”
Her parents, Connie and Dean Dooms, take their volunteer work seriously. The couple, visiting their daughter and grandchildren from their home in Springfield, Missouri, also turned out to serve Saturday.
“We volunteered at a Thanksgiving dinner back home at our church, Countryside Christian, for 150 people,” Connie Dooms said, “and we gave away another 80 turkeys to families. It’s not a big organized event. What I am seeing today is overwhelming. I had no idea it would be on such a scale until we arrived here.”
The Dooms gazed out at a sea of H-E-B partners in red T-shirts joined by more than 1,000 community volunteers deployed throughout the vast hall, watching as the day’s first wave of an expected 15,000 people began taking seats.
“We probably will turn some of these tables three of four times in the four hours between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.” Reed said. “Although with the cold weather, we will have some families and individuals who stay with us for all four hours, and that’s okay, that’s fine. Now don’t forget to wash your hands.”
The event draws a good number of high-profile volunteers as well.
Texas A&M University-San Antonio President Cynthia Teniente-Matson was on hand with her entire office team to work as dinner servers. Gloria Teniente, 75, her mother, was visiting from her Central Valley home in California. The San Antonio native worked as part of the TAMU-SA serving team, too.
“This is a great time of year to come together, and this is the first time my team has done this event,” Teniente-Matson said. “One of the great things about a public university is service to the community, so here we are today.”
After a prayer and the singing of the national anthem, City Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) welcomed everyone and introduced Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Erika Prosper, an H-E-B executive and the mayor’s wife.
“Throughout Texas and Mexico, 250,000 families are able to sit down and share a meal and fellowship thanks to H-E-B,” Nirenberg said.
Prosper, who was born in the Rio Grande Valley, addressed the crowd in Spanish.
“La primera cosa para recordar es la familia,” Prosper said. “The first thing to remember is family.”
“Thank you, San Antonio! Let the feast begin!” Nirenberg declared.
With that the powerful brass and voices of Mariachi Azteca de America, founded in San Antonio in 2006, filled the hall with a rousing version of “Volver, Volver,” as many in the audience sang along. For many who would feast this day it was a return to an annual event they have to come to depend on each holiday season.
All alone, a petite Margaret Arriaga, 82, took to the floor in front of the stage. Dressed in a red Santa suit, she began to dance to the applause and joy of the audience.
Suddenly, hundreds of volunteers massed behind red curtained walls separating service lines from the dining tables began to emerge, balancing large trays, each holding five dinner plates filled with thick slabs of glazed ham, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, and dinner rolls.
Dessert servers waited behind the curtains, each with large trays of apple pie for dessert. For anyone contemplating their own community feast, H-E-B spokeswoman Julie Bedingfield said, volunteers prepared 3,750 pounds of ham, 300 gallons of gravy, 3,750 pounds of mashed potatoes, 3,300 pounds of green beans, 15,000 rolls and, 1,500 apple pies. Beverage servers, meanwhile, worked the aisles with bottled water and soft drinks.
That is a single day’s feast. Other events have been playing out in Texas and Mexican cities and towns of all sizes throughout December. H-E-B this year staged 33 community dinners, culminating in the San Antonio event less than one mile from the company headquarters.
Working the tables, I can tell you this: No matter how hungry, people ate the green beans last or not at all.
I sat for a while with three generations of the Sanchez family, who came for the second year in a row from their Westside home. Leonard, who works constructing residential swimming pools, and his wife Elvia, help care for 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. They were joined by Rosale Salazar, a 15-year-old Harlandale High School 9th-grade student, and her friend and classmate, Serenity Garcia, also 15.
“This is our first year because we just found out about H-E-B doing this every year,” Elvia said. “We didn’t know about it until a friend told us. We’ve been to the Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner the last two years.”
Rosale held the Sanchez’s 4-month-old great-granddaughter, Mia Luna, in her lap, a smiling baby in a red Santa suit enjoying her first taste of apple pie. The baby’s 16-year-old mother had stayed home.
“I’m the one who has to take care of all these kids,” Elvia said with a smile.
“You’ve worked hard to raise your own children and now a second generation of grandchildren,” I said.
“No, I’m working on the third generation now,” Elvia said, pointing at Mia Luna, correcting me.
As servers got ahead of the crowd I table-hopped to meet more people. Many elderly singles were there alone.
“I like the singing, I like the food, all except the green beans,” 67-year-old Karen Annette said as she shared the difficulties of her daily life. “I have a boyfriend here somewhere.”
The Northeast side apartment she shares with several other women is in a bad neighborhood, she said, and she wants to move.
“I want to move to some other side of town where they can take care of seniors,” she said. “Some people we don’t know came into our apartment and took things and the police came. I don’t like my side of town.”
Some of those attending the holiday meal also took advantage of some of the social services offered by H-E-B in the great hall.
“We hope to give close to 400 flu shots,” said Jodie Bartosh, an H-E-B pharmacist at Store #427 located at 735 S.W. Military Dr. “Unfortunately, the myth is that you get sick from flu shots, and that is not true. The problem is that it takes two weeks for the shot to take effect and the flu is already here. The prediction is that this will be a worse year for the flu than last year.”
Nearby the San Antonio Food Bank manned its own station, ready to enroll South Texas families that need help throughout the year.
“There is no greater expression of love than preparing and serving a meal to someone seeking nourishment,” said Eric Cooper, CEO of the Food Bank, which serves 58,000 people weekly throughout South Texas. “This is an amazing tradition. H-E-B ensures that everyone in their communities feels loved. Not everyone has access to enough nourishing food for themselves or their families. Today people are enjoying a meal that not only nourishes their bodies, but their spirits, too.”
Cooper said the need is great all year-long in San Antonio and South Texas, where one in four children suffers from food insecurity and where one-third of seniors have to choose between nutritious food choices or paying for prescription medicines.
Many people mistakenly believe the Feast of Sharing serves the city’s homeless population, and while some do attend, every family I interviewed had an adult in the household engaged in some form of employment, and all lived in homes they own or rent. Half of the Food Bank’s clients are families with a working adult in the household who live below the poverty line.
Pedro Martinez, superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District, recently told me that virtually all of the district’s 54,000 students qualify for free, federally funded lunches, and many come to school hungry without having eaten any breakfast until they reach campus.
“You can’t learn if you are hungry,” Martinez said.
“This why my husband and I continue to volunteer,” said Rose Moran as she presided over a food service line, declining to give her age while readily noting that husband Chris, a retired Kelly Air Force programmer, is healthy and active at age 84. Both maintain a full schedule of volunteer activities.
“At one time there were 32,000 of us in this town working out at Kelly,” Chris recalled.
Rose currently serves as treasurer and an executive committee member of the San Antonio Conservation Society.
Photographer Bonnie Arbittier and I could have stayed for hours more, visiting with guests as they dined and volunteers as they served, but it was time to go. On our way out, we paused at the table where children were invited to fill out cards making a wish for Santa Claus, who occupied a nearby stage.
We watched as Marcos Salas, 10, helped his cousin, Memphys Villarreal, 4, write her letter to Santa.
“I’ve been a very good girl this year. Some of the things I’ve done, I’ve cleaned the house and I’ve made presents,” Salas wrote for Villarreal. “I wish that my holiday wish would come true. I wish to make everyone happy.”
Correction: This article has been updated to correctly state that H-E-B executive Erika Prosper was born in Weslaco in the Rio Grande Valley.