BRADENTON -- It was a time to appreciate hot food and to savor mealtime companionship Thursday on the Thanksgiving holiday.
The annual feast at the First United Methodist Church attracted hundreds of diners for a meal of roasted pork, mashed potatoes, green beans, black beans, rolls, drinks and various types of pie.
Volunteers served great platters of food in tents on the lawn of the church, at 603 11th St. W., Bradenton.
"It's a need for the community, that's what we're here for," said Vicki Behlke, of Palmetto, a volunteer serving pie.
"I came to enjoy the food and the companionship," explained one of the diners, Stephen Mathews, 52, of Bradenton. "I've met some nice people."
John Toombs, 42, a nightclub manager from Bradenton, sounded a festive note with his colorful turkey hat, while Brad Stanford, 31, of Bradenton, who works at an IT firm, almost outdid him in a glistening turkey suit.
"We came to help out as much as we could," said Stanford.
The Rev. Adam Zele, who leads First United Methodist, said a coalition of five churches had contributed food and 120 volunteers in order to provide the spread.
There were 420 diners this year, up from 380 last year, Zele said.
Asked why the church considers such an event important, Zele said that it regularly feeds the homeless, and they "are our friends."
"On the holidays, they miss their families, it's an opportunity for us to share a fun day," said Zele.
But it's a bittersweet holiday because many of those who are homeless and struggling remember such holidays in the comfort and privacy of their own homes, the pastor said.
"They tend to be more emotional" this time of year, he added.
Two military vets dined together in the shade of one of the tents. They were both staying at the Salvation Army shelter, they said.
Michael Hardy, 55, who is originally from Indianapolis, Ind., said he had no family here, and was glad for the food "because we're hungry."
"I'm very thankful this organization has opened their arms, and not been just talk," said Hardy, who said he was a U.S. Army veteran. "You have to put your mission where your mouth is."
Jeff Gerhart, 58, who said he was a U.S. Air Force vet, said his Brooksville trailer had been flooded when Tropical Storm Debby came through last summer.
He moved here because help is more readily available here, Gerhart said.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.