Hanna Moses Hines, 60, is among the hundreds who feasted on tacos filled… (Ricardo De Aratanha / Los…)
On Monday night's dinner menu at the Union Rescue Mission: tacos made from elk, deer, sheep, wild pig, black bear and antelope.
For pescatarians, there were yellow tail, tilapia and tuna tacos. Vegetarians were out of luck.
About 250 pounds of fresh game meat was donated for the feast, sponsored by the Sportsman Channel as a part of its national "Hunt. Fish. Feed." initiative.
Most diners were unfazed by the rustic fare. Many skid row residents who eat at shelters are used to diets that vary depending on what has been donated that week — from day-old doughnuts to Dodger dogs.
"All right, give me some of the wild stuff," Tommy Harris said when he learned his ground-meat taco was partly made of bear. "I want to go to the wild side."
Harris was sitting with some friends in the noisy cafeteria at the Union Rescue Mission, where he lives and works. Volunteers plopped plates of food in front of them, and the men closed their eyes to pray.
Ralph Johnson, 48, picked up a dripping taco and took a bite.
"It tastes . . . just like tacos," he said.
"Well, what'd you expect?" Harris asked him, laughing. "A big piece of bear claw or something?"
Although free meals are handed out daily on skid row, food options are often limited.
"It's really easy to get caught up in the unhealthy diet," said Linda Valverde, an area resident who put together a cookbook with suggestions on how to eat healthfully on food stamps.
Shelters and residential hotels often offer little or no access to cooking space or refrigerators. And there are no large grocery stores on skid row. Area corner stores close early, and their offerings tend to be heavy on alcohol and nonperishable foods such as candy, ramen noodles and potato chips, and scarce in fruits and vegetables.
A study by the Los Angeles Community Action Network found that each day, nearly 90% of skid row residents eat at shelters.
The Union Rescue Mission relies heavily on donations and corporate partnerships to feed about 3,500 people each day. The shelter's director, Andy Bales, said one night he got a call offering a load of 8,000 pounds of chicken; the truck driver had missed a delivery deadline.
"We ate chicken for many days," Bales said. "Baked and fried and chicken soup."
But Monday was arguably the first time bear meat was served.
When one young woman waiting to be let into the cafeteria learned what she would be getting, her face clouded.
"Ew, are you serious?" she said.
She ran to her mother. "Mom," she moaned, "they're giving us bear."
The hunters, many of whom helped serve the meat they supplied, didn't understand the fuss.
"We eat it all the time," said Paul Welsh of Yucaipa. "I shot a bear last October and we were eating it for two weeks. My wife loved it so much she was cooking it for breakfast."
Welsh's son, Eric, who helped solicit donations on his website, DIYBowhunter.com, said he picked up most of the donations himself, crisscrossing California and Arizona in his 1996 Tacoma pickup.
He hoped the event would change people's perceptions of hunters
"We don't just mow a whole bunch of animals down and then drink 20 beers on the way home," he said. Hunters, he said, care about animals and don't want any meat to go to waste.