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5,000 families fed | H-E-B uses Thanksgiving parade funds to host food giveaway instead

The money that would have funded the parade was used to give out free Thanksgiving meals to Houstonians in need at NRG Park.

HOUSTON — The annual Houston Thanksgiving Parade looked a little different Saturday.

Instead of floats and crowds of spectators, volunteers packed cars with free Thanksgiving meals. Organizers estimate they served about 5,000 families.

Money that would have funded the parade — thanks to sponsors like H-E-B, Reliant, Cigna, the Houston Food Bank, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and others — instead supplied the meals. Families were given free turkey, ham, stuffing, rolls, potatoes, carrots, onions, gravy, rice, milk, pumpkin pie and more.

“There are just so many people in need. There’s always been, but there’s a heightened sense of need right now," said Brandi Harleaux, a first time volunteer.

"This year is all about pivoting," H-E-B Director of Public Affairs Lisa Helfman said. "This year it's about taking care of the community."

City officials also coordinated the handout of masks, hand sanitizer and thermometers, so families could prepare for a COVID-safe Thanksgiving. 

Health experts are urging people to celebrate only with family members of their household.

Some people started lining up as early as 1 a.m. and cars lined the parking lot outside NRG Park, spilling onto surrounding streets.

"It is quite humbling," Helfman said. "If you can imagine the need for someone to come in that early for their family to have a Thanksgiving meal, we're happy we can be here. Times are tough right now during the pandemic. It's a different level than anything we've ever seen before."

“There are hundreds of thousands of families that are continuing to struggle. I’m glad we’re here to help, but I really look forward to the day they don’t need us for this," said Brian Greene, president of the Houston Food Bank.

Organizers hope giving out free meals will help families host their own celebrations, without relying on getting together with many other people to create a bountiful feast.

Families of all financial situations showed up for the food. 

"It's affecting everyone," Helfman said. "It's not just hitting your typical lower-income community."

“It makes me feel like collectively, this serves a bigger purpose," said Harleaux.