WHILE Mornington’s hotels, cafes and restaurants are often overflowing with patrons, the town has a hidden army of hungry people.
Virtually unseen are the hundreds of people being fed through vouchers, the SecondBite program, and breakfasts and lunches for schoolchildren.
Free dinners are now being served on Mondays and Fridays at Bellamy Hall, behind St Peter’s Church in Queen St.
Holidaymakers enjoying Mornington’s many attractions would be unaware that Mornington Community Information and Resource Centre handed out 60 per cent more food vouchers in the past two weeks than over Christmas, its traditional busiest time.
“Many families have exhausted their finances over Christmas and the holiday and simply can’t afford back- to-school expenses,” resource centre manager Lisa Elliott said.
“We’re actually starting a soup kitchen, such is the level of need we see out there. It’s never happened before in Mornington so that tells you how bad things have become.
“Life is just too expensive for many families with the rising costs of rent, utility bills and car registration. There’s simply not enough money for people to make ends meet.”
The elderly were at the other end of spectrum: paying rent and bills before buying food.
Ms Elliott said many single elderly people felt isolated. They had no money to spend and avoided the centre of Mornington.
“I want them to know they are part of this community and welcome here in town,” Ms Elliott said.
She said 30 people would sit down together for dinner on each of the two nights.
It would provide companionship as well as sustenance.
“We’re a village taking care of its own people.
“It’s those who don’t ask for charity who worry me.
“There’s a lot of money in Mornington, but there are people without jobs or skills. They are on low incomes, sometimes have mortgages, and quickly fall behind if there’s illness.”
The extent of the problem was graphically illustrated in the middle of last year when the SecondBite program began at St Mark.s Uniting Church in Mornington.
There were 54 people lining up on the first day to receive fresh food “rescued” by SecondBite and distributed to needy people.
Ms Elliott said 85 people were now being fed each week by the program, saving them $30 to $40 a week.
Food was also being supplied to six other community organisations for a further 130 people and Mornington Park Primary School, which served pupils breakfast daily and a roast one day a week.
Rotary Club of Mornington has given $3000 from its annual art show for a 10-week trial of the Monday and Friday dinners.
The meals are being prepared by the not-for-profit Karingal organisation in Rosebud as part of a training course.
Ms Elliott said the idea for providing the weekly meal nights originated at last year’s food security forum organised by Mornington Peninsula Shire.
“The evidence we’re seeing tells us that things are certainly tougher out there financially than in previous years,” she said.
“Not only increased cost of living, but there’s also far less job security nowadays and that means more and longer gaps in income. This often means people simply can’t afford to pay the rent or have to go without food.
“It’s not fair for the government to turn around and blame the poor, our most vulnerable people. It takes the focus off the real issues, which are there’s not enough jobs to go around and welfare support is being wound back. It’s really alarming to see the gap between rich and poor widen so far.
“With every cutback, we have to fill the gap, and this puts us under strain. We’re already under severe financial stress.”
In the past financial year, the support service has helped 5160 families and individuals by providing $74,000 worth of food vouchers; $20,000 in food parcels; $10,000 in donated bread; $10,000 toward school expenses; and $8400 rent arrears to prevent eviction.
Ms Elliott said cooking classes were being planned for younger people: “There’s a whole generation of people out there who can’t cook.”
The dinner will be served at 5.30pm on Mondays and Fridays in Bellamy Hall in Albert St, which is behind St Peter’s Anglican Church in Queen St.