Food for Thought

1 October 2019 Mariann B

Food for Thought

Illustration by Paul Vizzari

It’s hard to keep anything when you live on the street,” a young woman told me, pushing a shopping trolley filled with her belongings through St Kilda, “sometimes I ditch stuff because there is nowhere to store things. I lost important papers that way.”

The 2019 Foodbank Hunger Report found that one in five Australians faced food insecurity in the past 12 months; at least once a week, a third of them go a whole day without eating at all. There has been an alarming 22 per cent increase in people seeking food relief from charities.

Yet, some people, like this young woman, are reluctant to ask for emergency food because they lack the documents some organisations require to prove they are eligible. If you don’t have a Centrelink card or proof of address, how can you convince them of who you are?

I’ve found three organisations who don’t expect you to justify your existence; they can be a godsend for those who fall through the cracks. They are aware that we are living in extra hard times and their unspoken message is: “We get you! You are one of us! We’re all in this together.”

The Hare Krishna Temple in Dank Street, Albert Park, is a serene oasis in a jittery world. On fine days you can bring your meal outside and eat it by the fountain and flowerbeds. Overweight pigeons stroll by looking very zen, secure in the knowledge they will not be harmed or chased away. Even the toddlers keep a respectful distance. The chanting devotees can be heard inside until they join you in the upstairs dining hall. They take off their shoes before entering and sit cross-legged on carpet squares in neat rows. If you are elderly, they bring you a chair. However full the hall is, there is always room for another person and an extra meal. You line up behind a trestle table. The woman who serves you nods encouragingly and asks “more?”

The devotees make you feel relaxed and welcome. Young women float by in colourful saris and the men wear dhoti. Saffron-coloured for celibates, white for the married. Others, dressed in Western clothes, are from many parts of the world.

Tim, otherwise known as Nityananda Das, says the Temple services between 500 and 1000 people each weekend. He joined the Hare Krishnas 36 years ago because he wanted something different from the Western lifestyle, “something that made sense”. The strictly vegetarian meals are mostly fragrant curries with rice. On Sunday nights there is a feast.

You see despondent men walking down gritty Grey Street, St Kilda, shoulders hunched, heads down, trying to protect their eyes from the rain and fierce wind. They relax on reaching the Sacred Heart Mission. Inside a different world awaits. Behind the counter, people are chopping vegetables, washing fruit and stacking dishes. When they look up, they make you feel like an expected and welcome guest. Support worker Paul tells me most of them are volunteers; they bring carefully chosen plants and flowers for each table, tastefully arranged in containers. Like the volunteers, Paul chats to you, asks how you are getting on.

Jan, who looks to be in her eighties, has been volunteering for 20 years. She has a smile for everyone while she collects empty dishes on a tray. “I enjoy it,” she says. “Father always said I should give some of my time to other people.”

Today’s menu is Thai sweet potato soup, chicken parma and strawberry cheesecake. There is also a vegetarian option. The woman behind the counter serves a meal to a lanky teenage boy. He is all wide eyes and freckles. She dishes out the food with the well-practised moves and warmth of a mother feeding her youngest. The mission provides up to 400 meals every day to people experiencing homelessness and disadvantage. The recent 12th annual Heart of St Kilda concert raised money for the meals program. The Palais Theatre rocked as Australia’s finest musicians and comedians tossed their hearts at the audience.

It is 9am at The Salvation Army Lighthouse Cafe in Bourke Street, a safe place for Melbourne’s homeless and marginalised. Just three hours ago the cafe was a refuge, with people sleeping side-by-side on the cement floor. Now it’s ready for breakfast and the volunteer waiters are on a helper’s high, intoxicated by the opportunity to give.

Outside the front office is a sign reading: “Call to Arms – Soldiership Training for the Salvation Army” with a contact number. A man with bare feet and a bandaged hand is staring at the large screen TV on the wall, which beams images of how life ought to be: the shiny happy family, the holiday, the designer clothes, every luxury. Watching this, the man slams his bandaged hand on the table, then cries out in pain.

It was a busy night, people coming and going, some in need of emergency help. Support worker Marli worked hard all night and now it’s time to wake everyone. He knows all the regulars and raises each one by calling out: “Good morning Sue. Good Morning Greg. Good Morning Jim.” Some are still grumpy from lack of sleep, but they brighten up at the prospect of coffee.

Marli and Matthew, the cafe manager, have an uncanny ability to make everyone feel safe. Gifted peacemakers, they break up the occasional fight before anyone gets hurt.

Here you can ask for a toasted cheese-and-tomato sandwich at 3.30am and drink endless cups of coffee. Lunch will be pumpkin soup, beef ragout with penne, plus fruit salad.

But it’s not just about the food. Sometimes wounded people need a space to heal.

Three religions, but when it comes to helping people they are united as one. Salvation Army founder General William Booth declared, “Making heaven on Earth is our business.” If each of us gives a little, this could become a reality.

By Mariann B

Mariann B is a vendor, journalist and regular Big Issue contributor, who has dabbled in stand-up.

First published in The Big Issue Australia ed#601.