PASADENA>> A local charity that each year serves up a Thanksgiving meal for thousands of needy people announced Monday it can no loner accept home cooked food donations due to stricter Health Department regulations.
Rabbi Marvin Gross, CEO of Union Station Homeless Services, which feeds about 4,000 people a traditional Thanksgiving Day dinner in Central Park, said the organization can no longer allow people to drop off at the park on the day of its event turkeys, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casseroles or other foods cooked at home . “We were surprised because for the last 37 years, home-prepared turkey and other food items brought by community members have been an integral component of this event,” said Gross.
Gross was informed by Liza Frias, the city’s environmental health division manager, earlier this month that the tradition must be stopped because it violated the California Retail Food Code, which regulates how foods are produced for public consumption.
The code requires that any food that is made available to the public must come from an approved, regulated facility, Frias said.
Gross estimated at least 200 people each year would drop off items they cooked at home to share with the needy.
“It’s a shame that people can’t come and donate items that some of them have done for many years,” said Gross. “It was always a really loving way in which people participated in this event.”
Frias, who was hired by the city this summer, said she discovered the violation as she was reviewing different practices in the city.
“Quite honestly, I was really surprised that for all these years nobody has ever” looked at this, Frias said.
She said there is no way of knowing if home-cooked foods have been properly prepared and transported.
“It really took me by surprise,” she said. “Are you kidding me that people really drive up and drop off turkeys?”
Dr. Eric Walsh, the city’s Health Department director, said he didn’t know why this wasn’t flagged in the past. “I honestly can’t say,” he said. “I can only say once it comes to our attention we tell them the best policy and procedures.”
Frias said that as far as she knows, nobody has reported a food-borne illness as a result of the Thanksgiving feast, although many food-borne illnesses go unreported.
She said it is especially important to protect the segment of the population served at Union Station, who may not have access to health care.
Gross said that although people can no longer bring home-cooked goods, people are welcome to drop off nonperishable items, like canned goods, or packaged items such as a store-bought apple pie. He also invited people to make a monetary donation in lieu of cooked items.
That is no consolation for Susan Osen, whose family has made a it tradition over the past 20 years to drop off at Central Park mashed potatoes made in her kitchen Thanksgiving morning.
Osen said cars line Del Mar Boulevard and Raymond Avenue waiting to pass over hot dishes, including casseroles, turkeys, pies and more to a brigade of volunteers who relay the dishes down the line.
“In every sense there was a magical energy in the air with a community coming together to express their caring with the most universal of symbols — a fresh meal made from scratch with family recipes and delivered with many smiles and thank yous,” Osen wrote in an email.
“Frankly, this is one of the true holiday traditions that has not gotten mucked up by the forces that tend to do that, so, when I received this email from Union Station Homeless Services, I was shocked and then furious,” she wrote.
The amount of people served on Thursday will not be affected by the change. Gross said there will still be enough food to feed 5,000.