The Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner began in 1979 feeding a few hundred people in need. Now the event spans an entire exhibit hall in the Henry B. González Convention Center, and 25,000 meals were prepared for San Antonio residents Thursday.

The annual Thanksgiving event honored the late Mary Quiroga Jimenez, who co-founded the event with her husband Raul, a businessman and restaurateur, 40 years ago. Mary Jimenez died in June, 20 years after her husband. A new generation, led by their daughter and executive director of the nonprofit that organizes the event, has carried the torch for the city’s largest and longest-running free and open-to-the-public Thanksgiving dinner.

“This is no longer just a Jimenez family tradition,” Patricia Jimenez said. “It’s a tradition that San Antonio has embraced for many, many years. We have generations of families that have come to serve and have made it their tradition.”

In addition to serving 25,000 meals at the convention center, the organization’s 4,000 volunteers help deliver 30,000 meals to homes in the San Antonio area.

About one in five San Antonio metropolitan area residents lives below the poverty line. The greater San Antonio area has the highest rate of poverty among the 25 most populous metropolitan areas in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Leftover meals from the event – there were 1,000 left over last year – are sent to faith-based food pantry Daily Bread Ministries, which uses them to feed more people in need.

Michael Reed has come to the dinner for three years since losing his mom in 2017, he said. The San Antonio resident works at the AT&T Center as an elevator operator. He planned to visit his father later Thursday at an assisted living facility where the residents would be served their own Thanksgiving Day meals.

“I enjoy coming here,” Reed said of the Raul Jimenez dinner. “It gives me a chance to eat turkey and dressing with everyone else.”

On the menu was a classic combination of Thanksgiving Day turkey and sides: stuffing, green beans, yams, and dinner rolls. Attendees also were served coffee and an after-meal helping of pumpkin pie.

“It’s good for the people,” said Mitchel Schwartz, who has been coming to the dinner for the past five years. Schwartz, a Brooklyn native who works in the construction industry, said the event is helpful for experiencing different levels of poverty.

“You see the same people every year,” he said. “People have been coming for, I think, the whole time it’s been here. San Antonio’s really good with this kind of thing.”

The event opened Thursday morning with invocations from area religious leaders, a performance by the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church gospel choir, and words from local dignitaries.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council members helped serve food at the event along with Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar. In “puro San Antonio” style a few councilmen even passed out bottles of hot sauces for attendees with a penchant for heat. Presidential candidate and former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro also was on hand to deliver meals to attendees seated in the convention center Thursday.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said the annual dinner is a unique chance for San Antonians to lend a helping hand. Perry said the event is in good hands as it passes down from one generation to the next. Patricia Jimenez is committed to keeping the tradition alive, he said.

“That’s what families are all about – keeping traditions,” he said. “And this is a tradition that will continue to go on with that family.”

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.