Feeding the body, soul and the mind

In my family, we’ve always enjoyed our food, and the chance to sit down and break bread together — probably one of the oldest pleasures known to humankind.

The preparation of food is part of the enjoyment — unless it’s one of those days when everything that could go wrong has, and by the end of it, all you want is bread and cheese and a cup of tea. Unfortunately, what has happened for many people is the anxiety associated with putting a meal on the table prohibits thinking about affordable, healthy options, or enjoying the experience. That’s according to Marjo Moonen of Healthy Food For All.

Healthy Food for All seeks to combat food poverty by promoting access, availability and affordability of healthy food for low-income groups.

There have never been more foodie programmes of the Master Chef or Guess Whose Coming To Dinner variety on television, and a plethora of Biggest Loser programmes document our obsession with dieting. At the same time, obesity is on the rise, half the world is going hungry, and thousands of children die of starvation.

In Cork City, one organisation has been tackling hunger for the last 170 years.

Penny Dinners offers a nourishing midday meal to all those in need, and has done so since the days of soup kitchens and the Famine.

Their aim is to provide a warm, dry place to sit and eat, with a welcoming atmosphere, no questions asked and no judgements made. Regardless of ability to pay, everyone is welcome.

In recent months, numbers of those availing of this vital service have grown enormously. Penny Dinners now provides food for 900-plus people every week. Organiser Florence Harrison told me that she could remember a time, not so long ago, when Penny Dinners fed just 200 people in need.

* Florence, how did you first become involved?

>>“I was inspired by Betty Houghton, a remarkable woman who worked tirelessly for Penny Dinners for an incredible 50 years. Joining the board after Betty died in 1983 was my personal tribute to her.”

* Has the organisation changed much since then?

>>Well, at that time we sort of pottered along. It was a bit Like a Ladies Who Lunch club, and there wasn’t a huge demand for our services. We were only open for five days a week.

Then in 2004, all hell broke loose. We were suddenly inundated”

* What was that like for you?

>>There was a certain amount of strain on our resources of course, but I really welcomed the fact that we were there and able to help the growing numbers of people who would otherwise have gone hungry. We knew that we were making a difference.”

* You don’t receive any government funding do you?

>>No we don’t. We are dependent on the generous donations of individuals and organisations, and of course, the fantastic volunteers who staff the place for us. They come from all walks of life and sometimes from quite a distance. Like the four Franciscan Brothers who are training in Killarney. Two of them drive all the way up here on a Saturday and go back down on Sunday when the other two brothers drive up to help us. And they all work their socks off. Some of our volunteers arrive at nine in the morning and get stuck into peeling the mounds of potatoes that we need every day.

* It’s not just the food that brings people to Little Hanover Street though, is it?

>>No. There are a lot of people who come here because they are very lonely. And that’s a different but equally important hunger. So many people have become isolated. One day. I was passing by a man who is one of our regulars. and I happened to say something to him like, “How are you?” and touched him on the shoulder. He became very upset, and I asked him what was wrong. Eventually, he told me that he couldn’t remember the last time that anyone had touched him. I’ll never forget that moment.”

* You are operating out of a small 100-year-old former whiskey warehouse. How on earth are you managing with the huge increase in numbers?

>>With great difficulty, is the answer to that! We are currently waiting with bated breath to hear whether we will get the lease for a former probation service building. In the last few years, the numbers have grown, and we are seeing a lot of people who may have been made redundant or lost their businesses, and simply can’t feed themselves any more. It’s very hard for them to admit just how desperate they are.”

* Are they worried that they may be seen coming in to your building.

>>Yes. They don’t want to queue up outside. They tend to wait until we’ve opened the doors at 11.30. You can’t tell any more by looking at someone who has the greatest need. I realised some time ago that it wasn’t the people who wolfed down their dinner the fastest who were the hungriest.

It was those who picked at their food, and ate very slowly. They were the ones who had been hungry for some time and whose stomachs had shrunk.

* If you would like to volunteer or donate to Penny Dinners, contact them at www.corkpennydinners.ie


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