TAMPA — Cristina Manion worried about giving her four children a happy Christmas in a bad financial year with bills mounting and her husband out of work from an injury.
"We were lost about what to do for Christmas," Manion said. "It's important for our kids. We're just trying to get by with what we have. And it's tough."
The family was among up to 300 people Wednesday who attended the annual Metropolitan Ministries Christmas Day meal in a large tent near downtown Tampa. In a holiday season in which need was up while donations fell from the previous year's, the charity expected to feed 1,700 hot Christmas meals at 21 locations across Tampa Bay.
Tim Marks, president of Metropolitan, said the nonprofit group had to buy about 5,000 turkeys this year to cover a shortfall in donations, the most it has ever had to purchase. It was necessary because just 6,000 turkeys were donated this year, 3,000 fewer than in 2012.
"It was touch and go," Marks said. "But we weren't going to turn any family away."
So Manion watched her kids — Alvaro, 2, Armando Jr., 4, Arianna, 1, and Briella, 5 — wolf down a holiday feast with all the trimmings. Her biggest worry was simply getting her kids to eat their vegetables.
"They're picky eaters," said Manion, 26. "But they're kids."
And a little later, they would get cake or pie for dessert and some toys from the charity.
Reginald Landers, 65, sat alone at a table. Divorced and homeless for years, he said the hardest thing about a holiday is not being able to share it with family.
"My first emotion is sadness because this is a family day," he said. "I have to fight my tears back."
But Landers said the camaraderie among those in need is strong, too. "It's a blessing from God," he said.
Bryan Koonce, 47, called the meal a "joyous occasion." Holiday music echoed through the tent. A poinsettia decorated his table.
Koonce was trying to pace himself. This would be the first of two Christmas meals for him.
"I'm going to my own family when I leave here," he said. "I'm just hanging out trying to do my own thing first."
Alfred Astl, the chef at the Trinity Cafe in Tampa, served the needy a Christmas breakfast attended by several hundred people.
"I was in the hotel business for 40 years," Astl said. "And you get all the kudos from the people who can afford it, which is great. But when you get thanked by the homeless, it's a whole different feeling. You're thankful that, at the least, they will have a nice hot meal on Christmas."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected]