Miriam Salazar and her family went to three grocery stores before noon Thursday in search of ready-to-eat Thanksgiving meals. Save Mart, Vons and Winco were sold out, so they turned to Poverello House, the downtown Fresno nonprofit that serves the hungry and homeless.
Salazar, 40, and her sister Martina Baltazar, 32, are not homeless, but neither of their apartments has a working oven. Salazar said they have called the landlord repeatedly to no avail.
“The important thing is that we got to eat,” she said in Spanish.
“Yeah,” Baltazar chimed in. “And it was really good.”
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The women and their children ate from plates full of all the traditional fixings: turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, yams, green beans, dinner rolls and pumpkin pie. They had water and milk to drink. Servers walked around refilling empty glasses.
But not everyone chose to eat inside this year. Poverello’s annual Thanksgiving dinner has faced increasing competition from other groups wanting to help those in need, said executive director Cruz Avila. While he ran the show inside, unrelated volunteers handed out free tacos and pizza outside.
Avila said about 300 volunteers helped cook and serve close to 150 turkeys plus sides. They were prepared to feed 800 people, but only one-third as many showed up.
He said he doesn’t mean to offend anyone, but eating tacos and pizza on the sidewalk isn’t the same as getting a hot, nutritious meal served at a table indoors in a family-style setting.
“We do know their hearts are in the right spot,” he said, “but there are 365 days out of the year to do this.”
It’s also a health and safety issue, he said. Trash litters the street after the food is distributed outside, and some of it might not have been prepared in a sanitary environment.
“Poverello picks up after these feeding groups,” he said, “because sanitation and the city don’t work on holidays.”
Poverello has been serving Thanksgiving dinner for 43 years. It also serves breakfast, lunch and dinner every other day of the year, so the remaining food from Thanksgiving dinner won’t go to waste.
Avila said he would prefer to combine efforts with the other groups to maximize their resources.
He said he has held forums and other meetings with some of the groups to address the issue, but they haven’t worked. Instead, more people show up during the holiday season year after year.
Outside, people gathered around a taco truck. The sound and smell of sizzling meat filled the air.
Nearby, three Sikh men handed out pizza. One tenet of their religion is selfless service, so Gurdeep Shergill wasn’t surprised when his friend, Tejinder Padda, called him Thursday morning. Padda owns the recently opened Chicago Pizza on West Shaw Avenue in Fresno.
“He called me up at 10 o’clock and said, ‘We’ve got to do something (for Thanksgiving),’ ” Shergill said. “I feel really happy now that we did a good deed.”
The men brought stacks of boxed pizzas to hand out near Poverello House. Asked about Poverello’s difficulties with Thanksgiving dinner, Shergill said Thanksgiving reminds him about the importance of giving back and makes him appreciate what he has. Plus, he is thinking about coming back once a month to hand out food.
As he spoke, a man approached holding a full plate of tacos. He accepted another plate with two slices of pizza. Shergill said he doesn’t mind.
“If they need it, they can take it,” he said. “Maybe they don’t have a meal tonight.”
Nyree Bernard, 41, got four slices of pizza, two of which had fallen on the ground. She said she eats at Poverello House every day and had just finished eating Thanksgiving dinner there.
“It’s a good thing that everybody is helping Fresno,” she said before walking across the street to her camp.